Stephen Fortune

Metal DEC Lab Interviews

The interviews from the Metal DEC lab are now online at the youtube page



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Goldbloggers talk with the artists

On Friday the 25th we spent our day at Metal and had the chance to talk with the artists about their work during the residency. Here’s the result:


- Hans

Hans feels like an antenna here at Chalkwell Hall, he’s getting lots of inputs and inspiration from working side to side with other artists. At first, he found it difficult to free himself from business dynamics he’s usually subject to by working in a company, clients demand results, finished products, and don’t seem to care about the importance of the process, which is what the residency here is focused on. Being in between the art and business world, Hans tries to mix the idea of “uniqueness” related to the former with the one of “reproduction” on which the latter is based on. Using code (Action Script and Processing), he generates slight variations of the same piece, resulting in a series of reproduced but still unique images. Also, he is concerned with the role of hardware in digital art as often this is only thought of as art if delivered together with a physical medium. Particularly, digital art is expressed through screens, i.e. artificial light. Hans is here researching the possibility to exhibit digital art through other media such as E-paper or more viable QR codes techniques.



Other surfaces for digital art


- John

John was looking into two different areas and projects, one of which he had already started working on some time before Metal, and the other one set by him as a consequence to a theft within the building. Such system consisted in a small camera filming the building entrance, and a system that would perform face recognition, which was partially working – for example, it would struggle to recognize Graham’s beard.
The first project on the other hand, was involving one out of four swan pedalos that were used for the Liverpool Biennale and then sold on Ebay and that John decided to buy. His purpose was to try and create an “open source” swan pedalo: understanding the unconventional combination of the two expressions, and especially how open source implies that the source has to be available, the idea was to actually expore new methods of collective and maybe modifying use of such pedalo, through people’s interventions and suggestions. In fact, the object could maybe be modified by its ‘users’ as ong as it is still usable.
John’s view of his work is that all of it is continuous, and is not made for a sole and specific purpose, which can in fact be seend in the swan pedalo and the ongoing research about it.



Computers do not recognize Graham


- Stephen

Stephen is investigating the predictive power hidden in data. Data sets can reveal recurring patterns if analyzed over time and such patterns can show tendencies on which a possible model of future things to happen can be drawn. Data mining, a practice increasingly adopted by business to profile users and target marketing accordingly, does that by using algorithms to find informational patterns in databases and produce knowledge out of them (KDD). Various forms of divination such as tasseomancy, a method for reading tea leaves, also use data patterns to forsee the future; Stephen is developing a system that juxtaposes KDD and divination methods: a webcam installed at the bottom of a cup scans the leaves pattern and send the images to the computer that analyzes them through algorithms and store them in a database in which the interpretation of the same pattern given by a human user (divinator) is also stored. In doing so, the parallel human-machine vision of data patterns is merged in the production of knowledge.





- Olga

Olga, who is also a PhD student at Goldsmiths and attended our same course, created a light responsive system made up of four light sensors and three vibrating devices whose connection one to the other and then to the body is meant to explore the interaction between the sun and the body. By the time she showed us her project, in which the sensors were attached to different parts of her clothes, they were all responsive although some of the values (especially the one of sensor n4 on the front) had really low values because of the darkness of the room.
Olga is generally interested in infraverbal communication, i.e. the exchange of informations that happens at a non linguistic and more subtle level such as the one of electromagnetic fields and feromons. She is directing her PHD research towards the connection between sun, humans and machines, while the work she is performing with another student is based on interaction dynamics happening out of consciousness between humans, which she is exploring through the use of sensors.



Wired to the sun


- Rob

Rob is working on a system that captures images at set intervals and are affected by light sensors. The images are automatically stored in a remote server and then played as a sequence creating a time lapse effect; the hardware components of the system are a Make Controller to which light sensors are plugged and a camera connected to a Mac Mini. He is using Max MSP/Jitter with a patch that regulates the system and that he had created before joining Metal and edited in order to adapt it to the surroundings at Chalkwell Hall. He showed us some extracts of what has been captured between 4 pm on Thursday the 24th and this morning, resulting in a video where the shades affected by light intensity implied a visual sensation of movement and evolution of the space.





- Markus

Markus is exploring new possibilities in video expression not necessarily based on speech and dialogues but rather focused on montage and post production techniques. He would like to add interactivity to his work as it is something he has not done yet. On Thursday, he went for a walk on the mud (a “non space” in his words) with Graham and filmed short clips which he then edited in order to create a visual pattern. He often adds his own sounds to the videos based on what he’s trying to express.



Walking on mud


- Caroline

Caroline explained that she has not been practicing for a couple of years, and was now trying to explore new areas of research and get back into arts practice: she mainly researched during her stay at Metal, deciding to take on more different kinds of information without narrowing it down too much, in order to identify a focus.
One of the points she got into, was analysing how different means of everyday life exercise control on the very basic tasks of her life itself, such as work, amongst others.




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Database Divination: Classifying The Machinic Gaze Part 2

Having done the requisite research on tea leaf practice I decided to engage once again in the act itself. I again recorded the process using the same apparatus as last night.

To prep myself for the frame of mind one should be in when doing an act such as this I did some basic four fold breath breathing exercises and also listened to some binaural brainwaves music. It’s important to engage in these actions to enter the mental/psychological space, even if one would consider that space a simple suspension of disbelief, necessary for scrying practices.

I decided to steer clear of the interpretations of what the various symbols I saw meant, but realised that the person who looked into the tea leaves would need some sort of guidance as to what to detect. Usually this guidance would be provided by the tea leaf reader (in a classic instance of mediated agency between bodies) but in the eventual realisation of this concept this guidance will be provided by software who will provide it in order to gather information into it’s database tables.

Once I had completed the gazing and took time to look at the patterns I realised that there was a possibility of using the users input to the database as a trojan horse for the computer to garner information. For instance I could ask the user to count the number of leaves they see and add this to the database. This data would go into the computers view of the patterns, as knowing the amount of tea leaves might be additional data which will let it filter the imagery more appropriately.

Something that I found noteworthy was that upon later inspection of the glass that the patterns within suggested different shapes and combinations to me. This really made me think about the state of mind one has and how much this determines your propensity amenable to perceiving patterns. I wondered if there would be a way to bring out how distilling ones experience into a database could alter your pattern discerning capabilities.

Following this more intuitive engagement with tasseomancy I was on much firmer conceptual ground. I was much clearer about how the interaction between computer and tea gazer would have to be a co-relational relationship, with the computer adopting a pseudo – seer like position as well as acting as a data munging agent. I was also able to devise a provisional database structure into which the data of the divination practice would be entered. This is a rough sketch of how the structure will work


this is a rough plan, awaiting proper ER diagramming


I then set about using Perl to create a DBD interface whereby data could be entered via the command line. I wanted to code this from scratch as much as possible, as I deemed it within my existing knowledge and that it would take just as long to start coding it as to search efficiently across google for a script that approximated to the function which I desired to have. In so doing I was take a cue from Tim Kindbergs decision making process.

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Snapshots Of Digital Scrying

Here are some of my preferred stills of the webcam perspective of tea leaf reading


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How Quickly Can We Glue Some Shit Together

Off the back of this mornings conversation I figured I’d get the ball rolling on this topic.

I have a lot of experience of the frustration of muddling through layers of code abstraction with only an inkling of what is going on. In part this is an experiment to see how quickly I can accomplish what I want via searching the distributed knowledge of coders via Google. For a long time I have been uneasily conscious of how much my knowledge of code and efficacy of getting code work done hinges upon my efficient use of boolean search strings and knowing which forums to glean first.

I want a rough and ready way to analyse the movement of the tea leaves from the POV of the webcam. I searched for “image analysis perl” and in (0.15 seconds) approximately 299,000 results were returned. I believe I am found what I am looking for on the third returned hit ( a series of scripts designed to track the movements of flies. I imagine that pattern won’t be dissimilar from swimming tea leaves.

But I need to split my webcam captured .ogv file into individual jpgs for this script to work. I go through several iterations of search strings before this one “split .video into frames ubuntu separate” returns the hint I need ( This is stack overflow, the site that Tim counselled us on.

[evolution of search strings = split .gov into consecutive jpg, split .ogv into consecutive frames, split .video into frames ubuntu separate]

From this page I knew what I wanted was: “ffmpeg split jpgs”.


But then I needed to know how to install ffmpeg. And then I discovered that ffmpeg won’t convert ogv files. So then I need mencoder to change my .ogv files to avis which can be converted by ffmpeg into separate jpegs for the purposes of the script which I found so quickly.

I believe everything I want to do could be done quickly via a knowledge of PD or MAX or similar programs. However I wanted to test if it was possible to quickly assemble some code in a hodge podge magpie manner. In

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Database Divination: Classifying The Machinic Gaze Part 1

I was pretty pleased with the video and image results acquired from yesterdays webcam experiments to continue proceeding down this path.


However said path was marred by my creaking Lattitude laptop with Ubuntu Interpid Ibex installed. It proved incredibly hard to get software installed on it, however I did manage to improve the contrast of the images snapped yesterday. By increasing the contrast the pattern is given greater relief, something that will be easy to automate via gimp or image magick.


Adjusted Images which will help computer detect patterns more readily. Final picture remains unadjusted to illustrate the importance of calibrating webcam for consistent white balancing

The ever generous Derek Shaw of SoSlug offered to oversee the upgrading of the Ubuntu software, and in the meantime I cracked ahead with using Graham Harwoods laptop to do the various image software investigations. For a while I got quite involved in finding ready made ways of analysing the motion of the tea leaves as I had detected in video recorded last night. This process has been documented here and it did offer up some nice stills of tea reading from a different perspective. I’ve collated a series of frame grabs of the video from last night (a selection of which I have added here), which have their own bewitching patterns contained within and perhaps offer a totally parallel site for exploring the different patterns seen by computer and human.

However I found that the myriad of options available to catalogue patterns within moving video (and the associated complexity attending each method, including this which at first glance appeared to be relatively pain free in terms of implementation) was taking me too far in one direction. I wanted to return to conceptualising the process of distilling the overall practice of tea leaf reading into a database. Ergo a second bout of tea leaf reading was required.



This time around I was more concerned with engaging with the practice itself rather than proving that the webcam apparatus would hold up. To that end I dove into “Telling Fortunes By Tea Leaves”, a canonical text in tasseomancy dating from 1922. This provided some useful background information, some of which buttressed areas which I was keen to interrogate and some of which make me think again about the suitability of tasseomancy as a scrying practice.

The rhetoric contained within the book follows an established trope in occult & magickal practices, the idea that the subconscious must assert itself (‘self’ is hardly ideal to use here but it will have to suffice) at some point within the ritual. Within tea leaf reading this opportunity for subconsciousness to bubble to the surface occurs when the tea cup, with a small amount of tea remaining in it, is swilled by the left hand and quickly inverted. During this moment the mind must be either completely absent or intensely focused, again this correlates with what previous research into Chaos Magicks ‘Sigil’ projection. Interestingly Cecily Kent (the author) notes that:

“time has no meaning for the subconscious self”

This is interesting for me as I am interested in using the video capture length as data for the computer to add to its database table record of the tea leaf reading experience.

The person gazing at the tea leaves is invited to discern shapes and letters. However it is at this point that tasseomancy differs from the sorts of scrying practices I was initially attracted to: there is a rigid symbolism associated with the symbols detected, in a manner not too dissimilar from other means of fortune telling. This is problematic in that the divination practice suddenly become tied to a fixed symbolic register external to the experience of the practitioner. However it is interesting as the idea of the patterns being codified per some external authority is very pertinent to the broader conception of code, (code as embedded intelligence such as postcodes, code as ordering structures and protocols external to computers) that we have developed within this lab.


Note: Sigil as used herein is not to be confused with the use of Sigil in Perl. I only learnt about this crossover in the context of this lab, but it represents another interesting transfer between the occult and code

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Databases & Divination

My initial project concept of exploring glitch between bodies of code (i.e. vocal recognition software) has been postponed to a day when the software gods are smiling upon me.

However the other area which I wished to explore was the concept of juxtaposing practices of divination with the algorithmic action of data mining.

I feel that pattern detection is a massive part of digital culture, especially ubiquitous computing. I am really interested in interrogating the idea of prediction that underpins the faith in data mining as a worthwhile endeavour. I am interested in this movement at all scales (for instance I consider it appropriate to deploy within science but nevertheless find the refiguring of science (it is now figured as a fourth paradigm of scientific enquiry) occurring therein politically interesting (from a science studies point of view). The area which interests me most is the application of data mining to social contexts, the notion that a form of knowledge alchemy can occur through weight of data aggregation and data mining algorithm execution.


So several areas therein interest me. One is the respective distillations of experience that occurs in divination and data mining. Non excitatory (and non substance – induced) divination tends to have an object of focus and there is a communion between diviner and the object. Per an Object Oriented philosophical approach I would be sympathetic to conceiving of a relational agency occurring in divination practice. In divination the distillation of experience is difficult to locate exactly, it is fluid. Data mining is reliant upon fast computers and database structures. But it is at the data entry stage of a data mining process that the distillation of experience occurs. In this regard I am very interested in the processes of classification highlighted by Leigh and Bowker Starr. I am also interested in what categorising an experience in this manner does relative to the intuitive process that characterises other divinatory practices.

I aim to explore this through various means of scrying: initially I drifted towards forms of lecanomancy (water gazing, using oil or ink drops as a focal point). However I have drifted towards focussing on tea reading, or tasseography (or tasseomancy), as the preferred practice.

The concept behind the project works as follows. I want a user to engage in the practice of tea leaf reading. They will follow the procedures of this process, and upon completion will be encouraged to enter their experience into a command line prompt. All the data entered by the user will be stored in a database.

The tasseomancy process will also be observed by the computer via webcam. Upon completion of the task the computer will take a picture of patterns of tea leaves in the tea cup. It will log the data as relevant to it’s processing of the pattern in the same database.

I hope to gradually accrue records in the database wherein the process of human intuition, machinic vision pattern detection and pattern detecting database algorithms will all interact in the one assemblage.

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Digitally Detecting Tea Leaves

IĀ have done some experiments to explore means by which I can explore tasseomancy as a site for critiquing the pattern seekingĀ prerogative of knowledge discovery in database (KDD) algorithms by juxtaposing divination alongside them.

The eventual aim is to explore the distillation of experience that occurs exclusive to each system, as I mentioned in my earlier post. This means some experiments into how a database and appropriate tables can be constructed to capture every aspect of the tea seers process and practice. In some ways I am setting this concept up to fail as I believe that something of this process will escape the intense categorisation which is a prerequisite of relational database architectures and their need for normalisation. In so doing maybe this will prompt reflection on how every database system, irrespective of their predictive prowess, is ultimately a modelling that holds more true to set theory logic than the nuances of our lived experiences (and said nuances being elided is not trivial given the faith and belief placed in the predictive power of data mining).

In order to fully explore KDD algorithms I will need a suitably large amount of data. That is unavailable to me at present so I need another area of interaction between the tea reader and the machine with which they will interface. A visual analysis of the tea leaf pattern left in the cup provides a ready pattern for the computer to interpret.

I have settled upon using a webcam and I’m currently exploring two ways of providing the computer a chance to see the tea leaf pattern. One method comes via a snapshot being taken after the tea pattern has been scrutinised by the tasseomancer.

The above photos are rough webcam snaps, exposure modifications will display pattern but it is important that exposure process can be simply automated by code


Another comes via the whole process of tea drinking being recorded via a webcam positioned at the base of the container from which the tea is drank. Doing this necessitated using a glass, which according to most tasseomancy practice is not ideal. However it does provide an interesting perspective on tea leaf reading. (see the video below, which is quite poor quality due to the fact that I am getting to grips with the exposure functions of Linux UVC webcam software)

Webcam Rig used to capture above video

Capturing the duration of the entire tea drinking process is something I would like to do, and also a period of time I would like to analyse. I am struck by the idea that duration is an important aspect of any of these introspective, gnostic (in the Peter J. Carroll sense) practices. This contrasts markedly with the types of temporality at work in the CPU crunching the numbers which determine the patterns discerned by the image analysis algorithms (silicon flip flops and clock times).

Once the software crimps have been ironed out and I get a clearer idea of the registers by which the machine will pattern analyse the tea leaf patterns I hope to engage with the tasseomancy practice in depth. In essence I will be the entity responsible for determining the data architecture which at some future data KDD algorithms will explore and generate new knowledge (defined within KDD discourse as “novel patterns of information – an epistemic shift in what we deem knowledge).

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Electromagnetical Attunement: Initial Project Ideas

For some of my investigations I was really quite eager to explore the above experiment in the telephone game (or Chinese Whispers as it is known on this side of the pond, for reasons I am still not clear about). My twist on the experiment was to be training the computer’s speech recognition to listen to electro-magnetic vibrations via magnetic pick up mics.

However things have stalled at the first, and crucial, software hurdle. I was attempting to install speech recognition software on ubuntu, which does exist in the form of Julius and Vox-forge. However synaptic package manager was somewhat hamstrung and though I have managed to download the packages from here I am wary about getting sucked into the Linux terminal line (i.e. via DPKG) installation vortex (I suspect my grasping knowledge of code installation hasn’t installed everything from the ubuntu archive).

The hardware end of the project would be relatively easy to cobble together, a quick visit to a music store would suffice. However I really would like to build this electrical stethoscope as described here. I think this is interesting for two reasons, one being my recently kindled interest in biodynamic psychotherapy, and two because this method of attuning to computer hardware is intimately linked to earlier audio debugging methods

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