The Gentle Oraclebird – a post-project review

Earlier this year, I was invited by my friend Lisa to bring an installation work to a gallery in Columbus she worked with, 934 Gallery. I immediately agreed, and we spent the next couple months talking about ideas that would be possible to install in a fairly short period of time.

My decision to embark on this as a solo project had several factors – I would not have the time to fundraise enough money to bring a crew in, even on a volunteer basis(I still feed and house my volunteers), I did not feel like I would have the mental and emotional capacity to run a crew given my tight schedule…and life, and I wanted to see if I could do it. In addition, the amount of build would be significantly limited by time and transport options, so it would have to be a “small” installation(by my usual standards).

My interest in divination, and especially at the intersection of science fiction and new human rituals, comes from a lifetime of passing through or being adjacent to religious spaces(Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu…there have been quite a lot!), but also from more recent influences like my friends Pam Wishbow and Stasia Burrington, who have built compelling new divination concepts, and/or evolved older ones in new and interesting ways. The specific cultural tradition that I feel the Gentle Oraclebird board draws a direct lineage to is the Chinese tradition of kau cim, something that I’ve been lucky to have experienced since I was a child.

I knew I wanted to build a project that explored new human rituals, and I was leaning towards doing something gentle, and kind and …soft. A lot of my previous work is meant to be a bit unsettling, even if there have been recurring themes like human tenacity and generosity.

A lot of the initial ideas that grew into the specific aesthetic and concept of this installation came during a retreat that I help run on Quadra Island, Wayward. During the first week, I built this small oracleboard, that is read by tossing stones. I picked up that piece of red-brown driftwood from the beach, and basically planned the entire aesthetic of the piece around that. During the second week, I began work on an Oraclebird deck of cards that I already knew I would try to integrate into an installation.

When I got home, I began thinking of how I might want to expand that small wooden oracleboard into something larger and invitingly interactive.

Ultimately, I went for a fairly literal interpretation, and essentially enlarging it. I spent a lot of this time thinking of how to break people out of the art-audience model and into art-participant mode. There is basically no barrier at all at events like Burning Man(which is why it was actually a huge relief here to build art that wouldn’t have to account for assholes climbing on, and trying to actively destroy, your art), but in a gallery setting, visitors have simply been trained to not touch the art. In this case, I WANT visitors to interact with the divination pit, by throwing the ball into the bowls and matching them up with their fortunes.

Here are my first working sketches of the Gentle Oraclebird “divination pit”. I made these in early August. At this point, I was already quite certain that it would be a floor installation, and that I would build a “pit” inset into a raised wooden floor. I had also decided that I would be using the Oraclebird fortune cards, and that they would be mounted in wall boxes.

Most of my work from this point forward was finishing the card deck, which would be the fortunes, which is probably the most integral part of the installation. I wrote all of the fortunes while thinking of what I wanted this installation to be, which was a kind and supportive sort of new divination system. Like I was joking about on Twitter – therapists tend to say that I am emotionally closed off, but I’m trying to build a love letter to my friends with 400 linear feet of lumber over here.

I also wanted to include some people that would not be able to make it to the show, so I built an Oraclebird twitter bot! The build process for that bot, as well as a list of all the card fortunes, are in an earlier blog post. If you were a person that followed a lot of my work(and has a good memory), you might have noticed a small glimmer of the Oraclebird(Gentle the Oracle evolves into becoming the Gentle Oraclebird once her story passes through time and becomes a bit more mythologized) as well – she appears here and here.

The work that I did before heading to Columbus was mostly the interior of the divination pit, which would break apart for easy shipping. These boxes are constructed pretty simply, with bought bamboo wooden food bowls as the “divination bowls” and then mounted in 1’x1′ boxes I built myself. As a side note, Rustoleum’s gold spray paint is very nice and reflective.

All of the things you see above were shipped to Columbus, costing about $200+ via regular USPS. It costs more to do so via gallery shipping services. Below are smaller saleable art pieces that I also made for the installation. Since I didn’t have the time to fundraise or do any grantwriting for this installation, I knew I would have to try and recoup some of my costs by making some affordable art pieces and merchandise.

When I arrived at Columbus, I was met with a surprise! I had thought that I would be building in the gallery’s “installation room” and was told that I would actually have the entire gallery! This was both nervewracking and exciting but I was definitely not going to turn down the chance to build a second installation! But, of course, I had to build the work I was already there to do. That was at least, going exactly as expected, which is to say that I loaded 400 linear feet of lumber into a rented Toyota Camry and the room that I was building in was definitely not built with consistent dimensions(this was expected, and totally fine). As you can see, I decided on a simpler “boardwalk” style for the platform surrounding the divination pit. The structure itself is very minimal, although if I was building somewhere that was not a gallery setting, I would reinforce it all a bit more.

Meanwhile, I spent a couple hours mulling over ideas for the other installation in my head. It went in many ridiculous directions, which I will not bore you with. Instead of putting things down on paper, which makes me commit to them in some regard, I actually just…think…and I only start planning on paper once I’m pretty sure I’m going to go forward with an idea. In this case, I’d been thinking about labyrinths for a bit.

The last time I was in New York, I walked a labyrinth in Battery Park with a friend, and they explained the whole concept of labyrinths – which are not mazes, but rather a unicursal pattern often used for private meditation. Since the Oraclebird show is about adaptation of ritual, I decided that I wanted to  build a labyrinth, of sorts, on a large wall of the gallery. Instead of walking, because we are constrained by gravity, it is meant to be followed with…eyes. The path will be mostly unambiguous, although there would be small alcoves that contain fortune cards that reflect the ones in the primary Oraclebird installation, as well as vintage fortune cards.

The Oraclebird’s Labyrinth would be meant as a personal space built to store her most treasured moments to meditate on. In this way, the entire installation would explore both outward ritual meant to serve a community(the divination pit) and inward ritual, to serve self. I wasn’t expecting to do this, but it very much corresponds with the belief that you simply have to take care of yourself in order to take care of others. Thus, I decided to live this by ordering whatever fancy delivery food I wanted to to keep my mood up over three long solo build days.

From this point onwards, I’m working on both installations simultaneously, which is actually how I enjoy working. I also meet a great cat named Bepis.

The rest of the build is fairly uneventful. I realize that the heavy croquet ball I bought for the divination pit was far too cringingly loud, so I replaced it with a weird little twig ball I got at Target, which is actually more aesthetically perfect. I’m not sure you can see the blue grid lines in the picture, but the labyrinth installation was built by painstakingly drawing a grid on the wall first…but after that, things got easier(lots of fiddly little cuts of wood getting measured to fit, but that is something I’m not bad at).

I had brought vintage postcards, pictures, and fortunes to create a collage of the Oraclebird’s life on one wall of the divination pit installation, but I moved them to the labyrinth instead. The labyrinth became a way to plot out and store the Oraclebird’s life and fondest memories, which felt really perfect for the tone of this work. All paths lead home.

On the last day, it rained. I still had a lot of wood to cut, and the shop was next door and…that sucked. It was fine, though!

Overall, the build went very well! I am very grateful for Lisa and Abby and the gallery for giving me space to explore and build. I finished the installation on the day before opening, which was earlier than I expected.

Here are some pictures of the Oraclebird’s Divination Pit and the Oraclebird’s Labyrinth.

I made a hand drawn paper map for visitors to the installation, to give them directions for the installations, and for the practical need to include prices somewhere! Once a zinester, always a zinester. Here are some pictures of that map, as well as the other parts of the installation. I basically expanded out the work I meant to have in just the installation room to some other walls. It was actually really nice to give my art so much room to be experienced, even if I do like my usual sort of cramped style.

Throughout opening night, I watched as people played with the divination pit and walked away with their own fortunes. Many people told me that their fortunes were “surprisingly accurate” which was really wonderful to hear! Several people told me that the fortune they received was exactly what they needed to hear. In one delightful incident, a man wanted to roll the twig ball twice to see if he would get a different fortune, but got the same one twice.

I am very pleased with how this installation turned out, although I will admit that I really love my labyrinth the most…because designing and building it in less than three days feels like a really good accomplishment. But overall, I set out to tell a story about new rituals and kind fortunes, and I did it. I am forever grateful to Lisa and Abby at 934 Gallery, especially Lisa, my longtime friend and host, who gave me a ridiculously comfortable bed to sleep in and a very nice cat to cuddle. I am also endlessly grateful to all my Patreon subscribers who give me a financial cushion to be able to experiment with work like this.

And now, I nap.

 

The Gentle Oraclebird – the twitterbot version

I’m opening an art installation called the Gentle Oraclebird in Columbus, Ohio in a few weeks. It is a new divination system, that operates as a divination pit that you toss a ball into. The ball falls into a particular bowl, and then you pick our a corresponding fortune on the wall. Like many of my installations, it won’t be visited by most of my friends due to distance, so I thought I’d build a version that was accessible!

 

The Gentle Oraclebird twitterbot is built with Cheap Bots Done Quick, a free and delightfully simple tool that uses Tracery to generate grammar. I have a very rudimentary understanding of JSON, but it doesn’t even require much knowledge of it.

She’s having a pretty good run over at https://twitter.com/thegentleoracle and she responds to the keywords “fortune” (gives you a fortune) and “compliment” or “nice” (gives you a compliment). She also will respond to “more” by telling you about my show.

Here’s a couple of the fortunes that she dispenses. Like the actual installation, there are only ten of them, but as I update and expand the card deck, the twitter bot will be updated too! Each fortune has 1-4 different variants for the Twitter feed, although all of the card readings are the same.

Pythia’s Fortune Telling Cabinet

A project that I’ve wanted to do for awhile has been a rebuild of a vintage capsule machine into a wooden fortune telling cabinet. I finally decided to do so for my Apothecary show at Stranger Factory!

I began with a Victor 77 machine that I got off eBay for pretty cheap, although the shipping was high and the machine needed a bit of work. It was really easy to take apart, though.

The rest of the work was relatively straightforward – I kept the base intact, but decided to rebuild the top part as a pretty standard crate. I used mostly scrap wood from my wood pile, although the very front is newly bought poplar. This was not a difficult carpentry build, although I’ll admit that fairly simple math stumped me a few times.

This was largely a project to use up the vintage findings I’d been hoarding in my studio. 😉 I’d been holding on to this yellow knob for almost a decade after picking it up in the clearance bin at a vintage architectural salvage place.

I also reused the glass from the original capsule machine! I liked the “50c” sticker in the front.

The entire thing was stained(dark walnut, I think…), and I painted an ouroboros and a three eyed rat on the sides. The quote on the ouroboros end is from one of Plato’s accounts of Socrates – it seemed appropriate for a fortune telling cabinet.

Finally, I mounted an alien Hand-of-Glory(a leftover sculpt from the Last Apothecary installation at Burning Man) inside the cabinet itself, and added a vintage edison bulb!

It was then filled with fortunes that were mostly adapted from the PythiaBot generator! Here is an example of a few of them, taken from Instagram(from friends who came to the show!)

This was a really fun project to do, and I’m really happy with how it turned out! Sadly, vintage capsule machines are a bit finicky and I ended up modifying it to be a free play machine instead of taking quarters, but it does still function! It’s hanging out at Stranger Factory in Albuquerque until the end of April as part of my show, but should still be there afterwards!

Here are a few more pictures of this goofy thing:

a shitty fortune generator

I’m always pretty excited when I decide to just make things and publish projects without thinking too much about it, and clear ideas and patterns emerge anyway. I’m clearly really into bad divination strategies right now, between PythiaBot and the Bottlecap Divination board and now…the Shitty Fortune Generator.

I don’t have any real intention for this(it is liberating, you know, making projects without intention). I just wanted to paint a fortune cookie, and it was a quick hour-ish project that I hope makes a couple of people smile. The code is just random image Javascript, cobbled together inelegantly from several sources on the Internet.

the space hobo bottlecap divination board

I spent the last couple days of 2016 working on this idea for a space hobo divination board. I’ve been mulling over the idea of creating a larger divination toolkit for RPGs…basically, a box full of props for various imaginary fortune telling systems.

Anyway, I decided to create a bit of an asocial cloister for myself and do nothing but make art for 48 hours, and I emerged with the Space Hobo Divination Board(currently fundraising on Kickstarter for two weeks).

The next step that I’m really excited to play with, is building an interactive version of this board that includes some sort of programming to auto-deliver divinations. Been talking to my friend Sasha about RFID readers and thermal printers to see if we can make that happen. I’m going to finally learn how to work with micro controllers this year…it’s actually a bit embarrassing that I haven’t.

Oh, I also got to make some space brew puns, after about three hours of brainstorming with Jason in bed and a whole lot of awful puns. This one is an ongoing part of the project and I have yet to design most of the bottlecaps.

 

Most of the fun in this project has been in writing the prophecies. Here are a few of them:

@trashhaiku and @pythiabot

I’ve been a bit obsessed over machine-made art, not art that machines help to make, but machines learning how to make art. I’m currently very much in love with Ross Goodwin’s work in this field(see: Adventures in Narrated Reality, Part 1) . A bunch of monkeys in a room typing may eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare, but a bunch of robots being trained to deconstruct the linguistics of poetry and create new work…that’s already here, and it is far more interesting.

(Goodwin’s work is much more compelling, but here is the inevitable link to a shitty robot-written Christmas carol.)

Sadly, my first entry into this field is as someone who can’t quite code well enough to parse language, so I am currently dependent on the sheer flukes of phrase randomization. @PythiaBot is a fortune telling bot, seeded with a series of odd phrases that are all syntax compatible. It is a bit repetitive, but it has generated some surprisingly lovely sentences.

@trashhaiku is vaguely political art – it remixes Donald Trump’s incoherent twitter feed into similar incoherent haiku. It is currently hand fed, by me reading the original twitter feed to find phrases that match(more or less) a syllable count. I have to admit that I am not sure I understood what “suffer for your art” meant, but I do now.

Both are built on Zach Whalen’s Google Spreadsheet twitter bot code, which is remarkably simple to follow.

How to make a Twitter Bot with Google Spreadsheets (version 0.4)

The Apology(and thoughts on Twine 2.0)

I’d known of Twine as a tool for interactive narrative for a few years now, and have loved the wealth of games that use it as an engine for quickly spinning up fascinating and convention breaking indie games. I’ll provide a list of recommendations at another time, but for now, I am especially partial to Porpentine’s With Those We Love Alive.

As a visual artist though, while I am delighted by the tinge of 80s and 90s dirty cyberpunk nostalgia that permeates these games, it is largely a sad result of the engine. The Twine engine handles only rudimentary file linking, and the default black on white and sidebar look is so reminiscent of early 90s webdesign that it fundamentally directs a certain aesthetic. Really, Twine 1.0 is just not that pretty, by default, and it is not particularly easy to wrangle it into prettiness. (But definitely not impossible while keeping in the spirit of “easy” – see Cryptid Hunter, which cleverly packages up the text area in a custom frame and tosses in some simple but clever animations for a game that feels pretty polished)

I poked with it a lot in 2014, but the only short project I finished was the Citizen Science Portal, based on my Center for Otherworld Science stories.

This just ain’t that pretty.

Enter Twine 2.0. Oh man, I love the hell out of Twine 2.0. Aside from becoming web based(although I prefer the download), and getting rid of some tiny annoyances with file linking, it now handles standard HTML and integrates stylesheets quite elegantly. And most importantly, the default is clean and…dare I say it – pretty.

I wrote a short piece of interactive fiction; it is about a five minute read. It’s set, vaguely, in the Last Apothecary universe, but in the inner colonies. It’s mostly about going to a dinner party where everyone is weird to you. It is called The Apology.

It might be hard to tell, but getting rid of that default awkward sidebar makes a huge difference.

With Twine 2.0, I was able to take this vague inkling of a story to some sort of publishable interactive fiction format in about four hours, including the writing and the (very rudimentary, to be fair) graphics. There is a tiny bit of stylesheet poking, but I largely stuck to the defaults.  Four hours, though! That’s a pretty great prototyping tool for interactive fiction that can make the transition to published work fairly quickly(even faster if, like me, you’ve developed the habit of just iterating in production. I will never find work in the tech industry again, I’m sure).

Anyway, I am delighted with the changes in Twine 2.0, and think it is an excellent tool with a welcoming bar of entry, and I am incredibly excited to see more work built with this engine.