Fortune Hunting: Art, Archive, Appropriation

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Lisa Young

    Brown University

  2. 2. James Stout

    Brown University

  3. 3. Elli Mylonas

    Brown University

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

Although digital humanities projects have a variety of forms
and emphases, a familiar type is the dataset that is prepared -
encoded, structured, and classifi ed - to allow scholars to engage
with a research question. Such projects base the rational for
their encodings and classifi cation on earlier research, on
disciplinary knowledge from the subject area and on encoding
practice. The choices are then documented so researchers are
aware of the assumptions underlying their dataset. The user
interface that provides access to the data is also designed to
privilege particular audiences and modes of interaction.
Most projects our group undertakes follow this model, and
we are familiar with the process of elucidating the information
necessary in order to implement them. Fortune Hunting,
however, an art project, appropriates the forms of the archive
and the methodologies of literary analysis to express a
personal vision. The artist developed her representations of
the fortune cookie texts without any knowledge of the work
in digital humanities; she took her initial inspiration from the
library catalog and simple desktop databases. As we proceeded
with the web implementation of this art project, we became
increasingly aware of the similarity of the artist’s interactions
to the encoding and classifi cation tasks we used in other
projects, and we drew on that paradigm. As she was introduced
to these methodologies, classifi cations and analytical tools, the
artist also discovered new ways of working with her texts.
Artist’s Statement
The seemingly personalized fortune-cookie fortune is in fact
a mass-produced item distributed to restaurants in batches.
This random delivery system means that the fortune a given
diner receives is mostly a function of chance. Even with this
knowledge, many diners read their fortunes hoping to fi nd
an answer to a pressing question or recognize some part of
themselves. Over a period of years, I methodically saved the fortune-cookie
fortunes I received while dining out. I curated my collection
intuitively, keeping fortunes that presented an “accurate”
description of myself (“you are contemplative and analytical
by nature”), offered a sense of hope (“you will be fortunate in
everything you put your hands to”), or evoked a rueful sense
of misidentifi cation (“you have great physical powers and an
iron constitution”).
I wanted to examine my desire to fi nd structured meaning
in what was really a haphazard or random occurrence. After
some thought, I decided a digital archive that could sort the
fortunes in a systematic way would be the perfect lens through
which to read them. My work with the Brown University
Scholarly Technology Group started with this germ of an idea.
The result is the mini corpus “Fortune Hunting.”
“Fortune Hunting” allows users to create an endlessly evolving
series of narratives that explore both self-defi nition and chance,
the incomplete and transitory nature of being and desired
states of being, and the shifting nature of the personal pronoun
“you.” The anticipation, unexpected surprise (or possibly even
disappointment) users experience as they construct searches
continually enacts the same desiring mechanism (the need to
construct meaning) that is as at the very root of the project.
As I began to work I realized that most fortunes were directed
toward the diner through the use of the word “you.” I sorted
the fortunes into three categories: “subject” you, “object” you
and “without” you. Within these categories, sorts were further
specifi ed by personal pronoun phrases. For example, all the
fortunes that contain “you are” (subject you) can be seen
together. Similarly, all the fortunes that contain “about you”
(object you) can be seen together. A third method of searching
(“without” you) captured all fortunes not containing the word
“you” (example: art is the accomplice of love.)
At the same time, I became aware of the linguistic connections
the search engine could manifest (for example: capturing all
the fortunes that contained the word “love”). As a result, we
created an individual word sort function. Words could be
selected using the “exact word” search (for example: every) or
a “similar word” search (which would yield every, everybody,
everyone, and everything). The word sort function allowed
fortunes to be sorted across multiple “you” categories.
As the database evolved, I became interested in ways that I
could step outside its grammatical and linguistic parameters.
At that point we developed a feature that allowed me to create
“collections” of fortunes centered on my own subjective
interpretations. These collections were divided into three
categories: subjects (collections of fortunes on a particular
topic such as travel, love or luck), portraits (clusters of fortunes
that described types of individuals: writer, paranoid, neurotic
overachiever), and narratives (groups of fortunes that created
short stories: searching for happiness, reconciliations, revenge).
Through analysis and intuition, my collection sorts created
connections (both thematic and linguistic) that would not
necessarily occur using either “you” or keyword searches.
Another important aspect of the database was incorporating
the actual images of the fortunes. From the start, I was drawn
to the ephemeral appearance of the fortunes: messages on
paper scraps marked by stains and creases. With this in mind,
I chose to scan the fortunes and have them appear on screen
as images Instead of creating a strictly text-based interface.
After users have completed their searches, they can view their
results on a “picture page” which displays the images of the
fortune cookie fortunes, or an “archive page” which displays
the metadata attached to each fortune (allowing viewers
another way to trace interconnections between fortunes).
Lastly, viewers can move to a printer friendly page and print
out their results, leaving each visitor with a visual record of
their travels through the database.
“Fortune Hunting” is like going through a trunk in an attic,
sorting through a collection of someone else’s things and
making your own connections and re-readings. Because all the
searches are Boolean “or” searches users can cast a wide net
as they comb the database. “Fortune Hunting” is constantly
evolving, and each visit to the site can involve a different
interpretation of the material. New fortunes and subsequent
subject, portrait and narrative searches continue to be added.
Digital Humanist’s Statement
Fortune Hunting is an art project; the artist was inspired by
her reactions to fortune cookie texts to create a piece that
would engender a similar experience in the viewer. The form
she chose to exhibit her work, even before she began to work
on its digital incarnation, highlighted her efforts to classify and
inter-relate the fortunes. She created a large wall display, on
which the fortunes were listed in columns that represented
categories, with lines linking fortunes from different groups.
Young’s desire to explore the discovery of meaning from
the randomness of the fortunes led her to quantitative tools
and methods that are usually applied to carefully assembled
and encoded archives. The “Fortune Hunting” database and
website embody two competing modes of interaction: on the
one hand, tool based interactions allow users to determine
their own browsing strategy, using searches, keywords and
a visualization, mimicking the artist’s own experience of the
materials. On the other hand, users can view the results of the
artist’s interpretations, a re-organization of the archive out of
which she creates new meaning in the form of narratives and
Young developed tagging and classifi cation as a way to interpret
her fortune archive independently of her collaboration with a
digital humanities group, but her use of these linguistic and
analytical tools is essentially a misappropriation. The archive has
been carefully compiled, but is based on personal evaluation,
and oriented to creative ends rather than scholarship. The
classifi cations that are applied to the texts are also subjectively based. The formats and activities resemble conventional
digital humanities research, but for a different purpose - the
pleasurable discovery of meaning in the juxtaposition of
essentially random artifacts. The whole analytical structure Is
at the same time misused and exceedingly productive.
Like Ramsay’s explorations of literary analysis [Ramsay2003],
and the playful distortions of interpretation that we fi nd in
the Ivanhoe Game and Juxta [ARPProjects], this project has a
liberating effect on the digital humanist. Just as Young plays with
the fortune texts in order to understand how they “work,” we
are also playing with the subjective and exploratory application
of our methods. The creative use of these tools allows us to
focus on different parts of the discovery process, and we
derive pleasure from the functioning of the tools themselves.
In its similarity and great difference from conventional digital
humanities projects, “Fortune Hunting” makes us self-conscious
about our own practice.
[ARP] Applied Research in Patacriticism. http://www.
[ARPProjects] Applied Research in Patacriticism. Projects.
[FortuneHunting] Fortune Hunting Web Site. http://www. (site publication date: Dec.14, 2007)
[Ramsay2003] Ramsay, Stephen. “Toward an Algorithmic
Criticism,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 18.2 (2003)
[TAPoRTools] Tapor Tools.
[VisualCol] Visual Collocator.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2008

Hosted at University of Oulu

Oulu, Finland

June 25, 2008 - June 29, 2008

135 works by 231 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (3)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None