Cyber Psychic: What it’s Like to Get Your Fortune Told By the Internet

July 2, 2015 | Liam Mathews

On the internet you can find the answer to almost any simple question with just a click. But what about the big questions, like “Who am I? What should I do? What does my future hold?” You can’t Google the solutions to existential dilemmas yet. But the art collective the Institute for New Feeling is trying, and they’ve devised a method to use the internet for good old-fashioned divination.

The Institute for New Feeling is a trio of artists (Scott Andrew, Agnes Bolt, and Nina Sarnelle) who use the language and design elements of high-end medical care to create interactive installation art. The IfNF’s installation “Seek” was on display at Recess in Soho from April through June as part of the art organization’s residency series. “Seek” allows participants to visit their office (in this case, Recess’ storefront gallery space, outfitted with dimming one-way film over the windows) and receive “a clairvoyant reading generated by the misuse of online search engines. For each intimate one-on-one session, a specialist will lead a participant through a series of assessments in order to compile his or her personal video file,” as described on the IfNF’s website. In layman’s terms, it means they ask questions and scan images and then plug in the results to fill in customizable blanks in the video template, like an extra-surreal Mad Lib.

The readings are generated through a calculated misuse of various Google search tools. For example, the interlocutor types words into the Google searchbar that are gibberish to read but are actually answers to prompts asked verbally, including “What is your mother’s maiden name?” “Do you readily help people while asking for nothing in return?” and “Tell me the name of a person you wish you’d never met.” One snippet of text is then isolated from the link descriptions of the search results and run through Google Translate about a dozen times until it too turns into apparent gibberish. That retranslated phrase is a mantra (mine is, “It is not cheap, but it depends on the use in months,” as you hear in the video). After that, scanners in the chair photograph the sitter’s face and butt, and then those get image searched for similar images. These results generate much of the content in the video. The computer-animated meteor flying through space that makes up much of the video is tinted to the sitter’s aura. All of this is up to the recipient to interpret.

The chair itself began life as a massage chair, but it has since been customized with a new paint job and hardware. It’s shaped sort of like a toilet, one where you sit backwards on the seat and look down into the tank. Inside the tank is a monitor where I can see Andew’s computer screen as he logs my answers to his questions.

Andrew, the “specialist” who conducted my session, has a deep, gentle voice that would probably set off ASMR if I had it. He began the session by asking my name, including middle name and nickname, and the address of the house where I grew up. It was unnerving to give my address to a stranger, watch him Google it, and then have the Street View image of the house where my parents still live pop up in front of us.

The biggest surprise of my reading for the members of the Institute was what happened when they googled my butt. Often when they google someone’s butt, the person is wearing blue pants, which results in photos of things like boulders or ocean waves. But I was wearing pinkish pants, and many of the results were really gruesome photos of diseased and bloody limbs. It caught Scott off guard.

“Wow,” he said. “Pretty grotesque today.”

The session takes about 20 minutes. At the end, I got a video that tells me something about myself. I don’t know what it means, but something about it definitely feels relevant. Here it is.

The Institute for New Feeling completed its residency at Recess, and plans to bring SEEK other places are in the works. In the meantime, another one of its projects, the “Felt Book”, a collection of artists’ home remedies, is touring the country and available for online perusal.