The invitation for Seek: A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy, at Soho’s Recess gallery, was a strange one, steeped in culty vibes. “Visitors are invited to make an appointment to meet with a consultant for their personal reading. Seek is the newest treatment from Institute for New Feeling. It offers individuals a clairvoyant reading generated by the misuse of online search engines.” An invitation for a free “reading?” Check. Sounds a lot like an E-meter reading. Arcane symbols? Check. The Institute’s website is replete with them. And hold up– the Institute? Yup. It’s a self-described “research clinic committed to new ways of feeling, and ways of feeling new” that offers “a rotating menu of wellness treatments, therapies, and retreats.” Right. Needless to say we got down there quicker than you can say “Scientology.”
So what is this so-called Institute for New Feeling? And where do they get off purporting to be a research clinic, a provider of divination services? Well, IfNf is run by LA-based artists Agnes Bolt (the performance artist who locked herself inside a bubble for a week back in 2011), Scott Andrew, and Nina Sarnelle.
“We’ve been working together for four years and we frame ourselves as a research institute and we make various treatments and retreats that we frame as a wellness institute,” Agnes told us. “For the most part we’ve been doing site-specific installations, performance-oriented things, but eventually we want to open up our own space in Los Angeles.”
“We’re sort of framing everything through that lens, so it’s going to be a kind of spa people would come to,” Nina explained. “Seek functions as a clairvoyant session, but uses a system we’ve essentially invented. Our projects are neither 100 percent wellness nor 100 percent conceptual art, we are interested in walking the line between these two perspectives.”
The group is also making wellness products that Nina described as “sculptural works with a proposed function,” which is actually what Seek as a treatment produces– what the group describes as a “collaged Google oracle.”
In order to get the full experience of Seek, it’s best to sign up for a private session. (Unfortunately, the exhibition is only open until Saturday, June 27 and all slots are booked, but it’s a good idea to stay tuned to the Facebook event page, where you could feasibly jump in on a cancellation.) You can also check it out as a video installation. We went with the private session.
Seek is obscured behind a mirrored door with an imposing “QUIET” sign. We entered Recess Gallery and found a deathly quiet room, save for a delicate crunching as the gallery girl bit at her miniature salad. She instructed me to sit on a bench and wait for further instructions.
The room was darkened save for the glow of a screen displaying vaguely familiar images generated by Google Earth, a glitchy CGI stone bouncing around softly (videos compiled during previous readings), and a spooky looking massage chair bathed in projector light. The chair is retrofitted with a monitor and seemingly at the very center of the room.
The gallery girl politely asked me to remove my shoes and approach the chair. “Put your shins here,” she instructed before handing me a set of white headphones and motioning toward the face hole. Instead of finding only darkness down that hole, there was a small screen occupied solely by a small desktop folder that read “The Future.”
I adjusted my cheeks on the cushion and found that I was clenching my face muscles and even baring my teeth a little. “I really hope there isn’t a camera inside here,” I thought to myself.
“Hello?” a soothing voice suddenly came through the headphones.
“Should I reply to this disembodied voice?” I thought. I suddenly felt extremely timid. Here I was, completely immersed in a familiar setting, but having trouble adjusting to this forced intimacy with the Google interface and this… voice.
After introducing themselves, the guide (Nina, Scott, and Agnes take turns administering readings) will take visitors on a journey into the world of personal data by asking a series of questions. Things like: “What’s your mother’s maiden name?” “Have you ever lost trust in someone? Who?” and “What’s the address of your childhood home?”
Of course you can choose to pass if any of the questions make you uncomfortable, which some inevitably might (e.g. a request for some social security digits). There’s also a “body scan” that actually turned out to be “a butt scan,” as Agnes described it.
The experience feels like an tarot card reading session as it might be administered by a Google programmer. The questions feel intensely personal, but only in that the answers might well be the answers to the security questions for your bank account. But as Agnes and Nina pointed out, the questions the guides are asking aren’t totally outside of what people are already posing to the internet.
“I think people do project into what they find on the internet, even if they are looking for a practical solution, there’s always this yearning or desire to get something more out of it, even if it’s not rational,” Agnes said.
“People are already using web searches in non-sensical ways, attempting to find answers that the internet can’t actually provide,”Nina said. “The questions we ask in the seek sessions are a collage of password protection questions, credit history, insurance interviews, Myers-Briggs personality tests, viral quizzes, and also more intimate, personal material.”
But the feeling of getting too personal with a disembodied voice guiding you through the internet, feels less about an intimate experience with another human being than it does a IRL-sensory deprivation and focused net experience. There’s a certain coldness that emanates through this, like the feeling of being stuck inside a refrigerator– someone finally shuts the door, and the incandescent bulbs go out, leaving the cold glow of an LCD safety light.
“What if we were to give that power of divination over to the internet?” Nina asked.
Agnes added: “It has both a sort of sinister feeling to it and also this sort of reflection of the way that we really do use the internet as this all-knowing thing that we can type a question into the void and it might return something, even when it’s a completely inappropriate use of that search engine. So it’s sort of reflecting the experience we actually have.”
There are a couple of exceptions to the strange sense of sterility. Some analyses do feel deeply prying, clawing for ends that go well beyond seeking information that a hacker or identity thief might want. For example, I got the feeling that I’d been watched throughout the session once my screwed up, uncomfortable looking face was reflected back at me. After the guide advised me, “Relax your face,” I was almost sure my face was being monitored the entire time.
But I found out later I was wrong. “We could see [the person’s face] but we don’t,” Agnes explained. “It’s just during the moment of the [face] scan, but there’s the implication that it might happen later and there are these sort of subtle violations of privacy.”
“We’re interested in the way the experience evolves over the session, so you actually discover that you’re being watched over time and analyzed,” Nina added. “We’re taking physical readings in addition to the questionnaire, which I think is the more obvious type of reading.”
Your answers to each question posed by the guide are plugged into the Google search engine and whittled down until only a handful of results turn up. Somewhere in these hits is your prophecy, and seemingly the contents of that “Future” file we saw earlier. But it’s not over yet.
The guide then enters the prophecy into Google translate, back and forth between English — Azerbaijani — Welsh — Vietnamese — Estonian — Igbo — Persian — Maori — Afrikaans — Galician and finally back to English, where the original message has been distorted and reinterpreted. Does “none of the business — change or cannot be converted” mean anything to you? Didn’t think so. But I’m not going to lie and say that after all these mystical vibes, I didn’t interpret that to mean something.
At the end of the session, the subject is instructed to watch a video at the end of the session, which combines the image of your childhood home from Google Earth, your personal color profile, and all of the other answers you provided, skewed through a strange, New Agey, CGI lens. After walking back out into the sunlight, I felt like I’d just returned from a very strange journey, but also slightly violated.
The artists said they’ve had a range of emotional responses to the project, which they can gauge in real time as people respond. “Some people consider it a playful experience,” Agnes explained. “And then others are maybe affected more by the privacy violation, while some people latch on to the implications of using the internet as a mediated experience and essentially a lonely act.”
Nina added, “I think there’s a critical reading and also a sort of more open and meaningfully clairvoyant reading and different people fall onto either side of that, more or less.”
As for the New Age vibe, it almost feels totally natural. Crystals, tarot cards, and witchcraft are pretty much a part of your daily existence if you live in Bushwick. I wondered if this was even more pronounced in LA, which has a long history of being the home of cults like the Source Family & Father Yod and other weirdo hippie mysticism. Though to be clear, Institute for New Feeling may be part of this tradition but, as conceptual art, they’re also strongly outside of it as well as very much informed by post-internet thinking.
“I would say that horoscopes are on the rise, like, everywhere,” Nina responded. “I think the popularity of astrology feels ubiquitous [in LA], everyone at least play-cares about astrology, it’s not without criticality, but everyone’s at least aware. And there’s no way that this random search string [we do for Seek] could actually tell us something about you, but what if it could? That’s how I feel about astrology– there’s no way this could actually say something about me, but why not check?”