A chat with Stephen Fortune over a cup of tea (leaves)

I recently wrote a post about my volunteer work at FACT in Liverpool for the 2011 Abandon Normal Devices (AND) Festival which you can see here. One of my appointed tasks was to assist on the Data Mining && Divination piece being showcased at Leaf Cafe on Bold Street and I was far more inspired by this exhibition than I had anticipated. Spending a sweltering six hours sitting in the window of Leaf during our somewhat sporadic heatwave, I got the chance to chat to the brains behind the whole operation; the aptly named, Stephen Fortune (@quadrophobiac).

As Stephen explains on his blog, the participant is seated in front of a standard keyboard, mouse and monitor ensemble but the desktop furniture is joined by the modified tea cup constructed by him. At the bottom of the tea cup is webcam which records the tea as the user sips, producing some amusing POV images on screen which never failed to make a participant or myself chuckle.

Once the brew has been glugged down to teaspoon measurements, they are instructed to swirl the teacup thrice in their inferior hand, turn the teacup on it’s head and back again to rid of any remaining liquid then replace the cup onto a stand under another webcam. The user is required to complete a data form on screen consisting of questions set to establish what objects/images/numbers etc that they can ‘see’ in the leftover tea leaves which symbolise their fortune.

  • I was intrigued to find out what drew Stephen to this topic and what inspired his train of thought…
His website explains that he is an explorer of the contrast between mechanic and embodied knowledge systems and the changes which come as a result of technological intervention. He also told me that he is interested in everything routed to the unconsciousness and the subliminal and irrational suggestions which come of this – much like hypnotherapy.
  • I also asked him how did you know what each symbol would mean, how do you write each person’s fortune depending on what they tell you they see?
Stephen informed me of how he had used a 1926 book on transcript (Telling Fortunes By tea Leaves by Cicely Kent) to add the standard interpretations of tea leaf patterns to the database and these interpretations in the database then generate the person’s fortune.
  • But this book is from the early nineteenth-century. What if a participant sees some form of imagery that is not in the database?
The computer uses a ‘synonym look up table’ to generate ‘meanings’ behind a majority of the images perceived by the participants, I was told. 

  • I read the steps that each participant had to follow and it instructed them to “take the cup in your bad hand, swirl the cup three times” and I was curious to know why it had to be taken in their ‘bad hand’…
Stephen told me that swirling the teacup in the bad hand makes the gesture far more absent minded and spontaneous with a distinct lack of control akin to conversational hypnotherapy which delves into the subject’s unconscious as opposed to more direct, contrived techniques.
  • Finally, I asked Stephen, is there actually any truth in this fortune telling, is anything left to chance or is it all mechanics?

After a suggestive chuckle he divulged that “truth” is a slippery term and went on to explain the workings of subjectivity in this artwork and how he is far more interested in a person’s unconsciousness and how they effectively construct their own fortunes through ‘seeing’ the symbols in their teacup.

I am 100% certain that my post lacks the technicalities and correct jargon that is required to best do this piece of art justice and these are just the questions which sprang to my mind, which is not so knowledgable in this area, so I urge you to follow on to Stephen’s own post on his blog about showcasing Data Mining && Divination as commissioned by AND Festival for more info.

Thanks for your time Stephen and it was a pleasure to pick your brains and once again, thanks to the people at FACT and AND Festival for the opportunity!

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