Domenico Quaranta on Tue, 2 Dec 2008 23:06:12 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Pixxelpoint 2008 - For God's Sake! Essay

Domenico Quaranta

“God Always Uses the Latest Technology.”

In the little town in northern Italy where I live, which is  
economically prosperous, culturally sleepy, religiously bigotted and  
politically conservative, there is a small but interesting “Museum of  
Art and Spirituality”. It presents part of the collection of  
contemporary art that belonged to Giovanni Battista Montini, a.k.a.  
Pope Paul VI, an illustrious local man and possibly the last Catholic  
pope to believe that contemporary art could convey a religious  
message. After a brief look at the collection, it is easy to agree  
that Pope Paul’s faith in art, was, as they say, blind. While  
alongside a few daubs, he managed to collect a number of undisputed  
masterpieces, by artists including Sironi, Morandi, De Chirico,  
Chagall, Kokoschka, Dalì, Matisse, Manzù and Giacometti, in this art  
it is difficult to find the populace-educating power of Medieval and  
Renaissance art, or the astounding emotional impact of Baroque art.  
None of these works has the catalyzing power of an icon. Contemporary  
art alters the rhetoric of religious art, learns its stylistic  
approaches and tackles it from a secular point of view. At times it  
conveys a private form of spirituality, not necessarily linked to any  
religion. And often, when it tackles official religions, it does so in  
a provocative, iconoclastic way: take Martin Kippenberger’s crucified  
frog, for instance, or the cross submerged in the urine of Andres  
Serrano, or Maurizio Cattelan’s Nona ora, or the Virgin Mary blackened  
with elephant dung by Chris Ofili, or Vanessa Beecroft’s recent  
Madonnas. All of these works are undoubtedly imbued with their own  
form of “sacredness”, yet they would hardly be hung in a church.
Even post-colonial art, which takes account of local traditions and  
therefore often deals with the powerful influence of religion, seems  
more intent on critiquing this influence than exploring its depths. In  
the contemporary art world, only video – in some instances - seems to  
have taken up the legacy of great religious art: take Bill Viola, for  
example, whose works have also been shown in cathedrals. We could  
explore the extent to which this is connected to the fluid magic of  
the electronic image, and more in general the ability demonstrated by  
the mass media in conveying the religious message, and recuperating  
the role of “biblia pauperum” once played by the great fresco cycles.
While sects and religions have had a hold over radio and television  
frequencies for some time, the film industry, from The Ten  
Commandments (1956) to The Passion of The Christ (2004), has  
accomplished what art has no longer been able to for around two  
centuries. But it has been above all with the appearance of the  
phenomenon euphemistically dubbed “the clash of civilizations” that we  
have become aware of the extraordinary readiness and skill shown by  
religions of all kinds in exploiting the media. The papal decree  
declaring the validity of a blessing received during a live radio  
programme (1967) came around the same time as Nam June Paik’s first  
legendary video (Café Gogo, Blecker Street, 1965, featuring the Pope),  
and the same recognition was accorded to blessings on the internet in  
1995, when most of the political world had not yet even acknowledged  
its existence. On another front, the videos of Palestinian kamikazes  
have done much more for the development of “tactical media” than the  
Seattle movement. “God Always Uses the Latest Technology”, I once read  
on a Christian website. Holy wars are now waged as much in virtual  
worlds as real ones, and in video games such as Under Ash and Kuma War  
as much as with car bombs and air raids. We look to technology to  
confirm myth and miracle, from the Turin Shroud, to the blood of St.  
Gennaro, to the tears of the Virgin Mary; while the Catholic backing  
for Mel Gibson’s blockbuster is common knowledge, as is the way in  
which Opus Dei adroitly used the media to turn The Da Vinci Code’s  
bumbling but best-selling attack to its own advantage.

As I write there is an exhibition regarding this very theme – the  
skilful use of the media made by sects and religions - being staged.  
Entitled “Media Religion”, it is hosted by the Center for Art and  
Media in Karlsruhe (curated by Boris Groys and Peter Weibel). The  
press release goes as follows:
“Video has become the chosen media for religious propaganda as it can  
be produced and distributed particularly fast thanks to today's  
technology. [...] The exhibition “Media Religion” aims to demonstrate  
the medial aspect of religion based on current examples of religious  
propaganda and individual works by contemporary artists. Shown, among  
others, will be confession videos by religiously inspired terrorists,  
religious propaganda television series, and documentaries about  
current sects and religious groups. The artistic works juxtaposing the  
documentary material arise for the most part from the same context as  
the religious movements that they refer to. The relationship of most  
of the artists to religious rituals, images, and texts from their own  
culture is neither affirmative nor critical but instead, blasphemous.  
In this way, a critical analysis of the respective religious  
iconography is possible, as well as its crossover into modern culture.”

If the religious – when not cultural – use of the media has had a hand  
in bringing religion to the centre of artists’ attention, the  
ramifications of religion in the information society are, if possible,  
even more complex and fascinating. Whether we like it or not,  
spirituality has shaped the evolution of the media, and has in turn  
been greatly influenced by it.

Two of the most effective technological era brands – the Big Brother  
symbol and the Second Life logo - are patently inspired by the divine  
eye, and more generally, religious iconography appears to be almost an  
obligatory reference for many communications and media companies,  
especially stateside. High tech gadgets are increasingly aspiring,  
with undisputed success, to the status of fetish object. Without any  
great qualms we have replaced rosary beads and holy images with iPods  
and iPhones, and prayer books (even in the form of Mao Tse Tung’s  
little red book) with Notebooks. Total immersion in videogame playing,  
even from the postural point of view, resembles a new form of prayer  
or religious ecstasy, and search engines have acquired the status of  
oracles. “It’s true – I read it on Google”, is an often-heard mantra  
that sounds like an act of faith. If religion is (or was) the opium of  
the people, in the 90s it was banal to say the same of television, and  
now of Youtube.

“God games” are one of the most successful videogame genres, and  
together with the satellite vision made popular by GPS systems and  
Google Earth, they show how much we enjoy having an omniscient,  
commanding view of the world. What the Greeks regarded as the sin of  
hubris is commonplace for us, almost mundane, as is another divine  
prerogative man has granted himself: that of taking on different forms  
and using these to operate in different worlds. Like in the past, this  
projection of the divine ego is known as an avatar, but unlike in the  
past, it is now a possibility open to any acne-ridden adolescent. For  
today’s teenagers, “virtual life” is a fact of life, but often it is  
also, like in the film eXsistenZ (1999) by David Cronenberg (also  
present at Pixxelpoint) a collective cult, a religion. The fact that  
it is not yet possible to risk one’s ‘real’ life (unlike in the film),  
is a mere detail. Technology also violates our privacy like only God  
used to be able to; thus while we are increasingly unwilling to attend  
confession, we find it easier and easier to lay our souls bare on  
social networks. While our computers are not yet as powerful as HAL  
9000, the arrogant superbrain in 2001 A Space Odyssey, we get the  
impression that this is not far off. In any case, a few years back we  
were sufficiently advanced to direct our millennial angst at an  
improbable “millennium bug”, and more recently, at a highly  
technological particle accelerator, which ended up getting jammed on  
its first run.

I am writing this article on my Macbook, on a slow, clunky train which  
was probably last renovated at the beginning of the 90s. It is called  
Freccia della Versilia – Arrow of Versilia. Opposite me there is a  
girl in pointed shoes and ripped jeans painting her nails and replying  
to sporadic messages on her Blackberry. When this secular ritual is  
interrupted, she takes a tiny pamphlet out of her bag – about 5 cm  
across, and with few pages. On the cover there is a Madonna and child  
image, but a few details reveal that this prayer book is not the stuff  
of Catholic orthodoxy. To the side of me there are two other girls.  
One has an open copy of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace by  
Arthur C. Danto, while the other, who is wearing Timberlands and a  
Palestinian kefiah, is holding a sheaf of notes. But instead of  
reading, the girls are talking about nirvana, The Celestine Prophecy  
and finalism, mixing philosophy, mysticism and new age. Then they  
stop, and the one reading Danto gets out an iPod. I swear. May god  
strike me down if I am not speaking the truth. If I had looked around  
the train earlier, I might not have written what I have. But the fact  
that the bag of a 20-something can contain a Blackberry, a prayer  
book, The Celestine Prophecy and an iPod is not really a  
contradiction, when it comes down to it. The future is here, and at  
least in this part of the world it is distributed pretty well, but it  
coexists with a past which is unwilling to bow out. The strange times  
we live in are the children of both syncretisms and synchronies.

Contemporary art often raises these issues – technological fetishism,  
the oracular nature of the internet, the fideistic attitude with which  
we use the media, and the “evangelizing” approach of those who produce  
them. It often adopts a critical stance, but also looks to the media  
as an authentic vehicle for spirituality. When I began working on For  
God's Sake!, the show was basically a tag cloud, a cluster of key  
words: hi-tech fetishism, technology mysticism, Millennium Bug, HAL  
9000, Brainstorm, Big Brother, Truman Show, surveillance,  
dataveillance, privacy, oracle, rituality, avatar, community, social  
networks etc. I had a few phrases and a few works in mind, but I  
didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. On the other hand I knew  
exactly what I didn’t want to do: I didn’t want to stage an exhibition  
which attributed one single meaning to the term “religion”; I didn’t  
want to put on an exhibition of religious art, or profanity, but  
rather mix saints and heretics, worshippers and blasphemers. I wanted  
to move away from cyberpunk mysticism, techno-hippies, data-gloves and  
virtual reality gurus, but also the lavish effects of audio visual  
work, the facile attraction of electromagnetism and the other tricks  
much beloved by Teslans. What I was particularly interested in was  
exploring the relationship that develops between our spiritual lives,  
both individual and collective, and the gadgets we use on a daily  
basis; understanding how these worm their way into our imaginations,  
and how they exploit and enrich our symbols and metaphors, and also  
understanding where faith takes shelter in a world where nothing seems  
private, a world which has transferred the “style” of the sacred to  
consumer goods, and which has submerged silence under an unprecedented  
information overload.

The works gradually fleshed out the framework I had sketched,  
enriching it and often surprising me. The power of some of the images  
astounded me: the evocative Via Crucis of shadows imagined by Markus  
Kison, the dance of satellites orchestrated by Janez Janša, or Briant  
Dameron’s traveller, who seeks confirmation of his existence in an  
empty screen. I was surprised to witness the appearance of various  
issues I had not considered, like the exploration of the prescriptive,  
authoritarian nature of certain artistic languages and styles: from  
the tutorials collected and examined by Petros Moris to the Powerpoint  
style parodied by Clemens Kogler. I was even more surprised to  
discover, in some works, how needs, rituals, and even the sacraments  
of faith can find support and mediation in the community aspects of  
digital technologies, and that this in no way undermines their  
original purity. The fact that a few of these works adopt an ironic  
approach does not make this new dimension of rituality less interesting.

One project with an extremely serious theoretical premise is Mission  
Eternity, an ambitious work in progress by the Swiss collective etoy.  
Mission Eternity describes itself as “a digital cult of the dead”, and  
entails digital archiving and data conservation, and the social  
dimension of peer to peer networks; it blends technology and ancient  
rites, with a modernized version of the Chinese joss paper tradition  
which bestows shares in the etoy.corporation, rather than money, on  
the deceased.
Meditation for Avatars, by the German artists Ute Hoerner and Mathias  
Antlfinger, involves a series of networked client - computers with the  
work installed on them, to give rise to a kind of collective  
meditation. Participants perform a mantra then send it to the other  
users online. This creates a community of computers in meditation,  
generating a field of positive energy that the artists reckon is  
transferred to the users. Vice versa, the Empathy Box by the Italian  
collective Io/cose establishes a community of users united by empathy  
through their shared perception of pain – pain caused by an electric  
shock generated by the device and transmitted through the human chain.  
Lastly, Confession 2.0 by Cristiano Poian and Paolo Tonon explores the  
connection between the drastic drop in confession attendance and the  
digital soul-baring typical of social networks, by means of a high- 
tech confessional that makes our confessions public, transforming us  
into “successful sinners”.

All of these works deploy the rites, sacraments, idols and fetishes of  
a spirituality currently renewing itself in line with the  
anthropological mutation in progress. As has always happened, for the  
greater glory of God.


Domenico Quaranta is an art critic and curator based in Brescia,  
Italy. With a specific passion for and interest in net art and new  
media, Domenico regularly writes for Flash Art magazine. His first  
book, titled NET ART 1994-1998: La vicenda di Äda'web was published in  
2004; he also co-curated Connessioni Leggendarie. 1995-2005  
(Milan, October 2005) and Holy Fire. Art of the Digital Age (Brussels,  
April 2008) and co-edited the book GameScenes, together with Matteo  
Bittanti Art in the Age of Videogames (Milan, October 2006). In  
February 2009, he will curate the Expanded Box for Arco Art Fair in  
Madrid, Spain.


Domenico Quaranta

mob. +39 340 2392478
home. vicolo San Giorgio 18 - 25122 brescia (BS)

"Computers are incredibly fast, accurate and stupid. Human beings are  
incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant. Together they are powerful  
beyond imagination." Albert Einstein

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