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NEW-MEDIA-CURATING  December 2008

NEW-MEDIA-CURATING December 2008

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Subject:

Pixxelpoint 2008 - For God's Sake Essay

From:

Domenico Quaranta <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Domenico Quaranta <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 2 Dec 2008 17:24:37 +0100

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

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text/plain (264 lines)

Dear Crumbers,

I hope this could be interesting for you!
Bests,
Domenico

---

FOR GOD'S SAKE!
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. Net.art 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. www.domenicoquaranta.net


---

Domenico Quaranta

mob. +39 340 2392478
email. [log in to unmask]
home. vicolo San Giorgio 18 - 25122 brescia (BS)
web. http://www.domenicoquaranta.net/

"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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