DORTMUND, Germany – “Let’s use smartphones and tarot cards to connect with spirits,” it says on the wall, illuminated in soft ultraviolet light. “Let’s make DIY devices to hear invisible worlds.”
The incantations printed as wallpaper are part of the “Cyberwitches Manifesto” by the French artist Lucile Olympe Haute, an installation in the “Technoshamanism” exhibition, which can be seen until March 6, 2022 at the Hartware MedienKunstVerein in Dortmund. The group exhibition, which brings together the work of 12 artists and collectives, explores the connections between technology and esoteric, ancestral belief systems.
In our always-online life, the supernatural has a high-tech moment. Spirituality is everywhere in our feeds: Self-help guru Deepak Chopra co-founded his own NFT platform, Witches read tarot on TikTok, and the AI-controlled astrology app Co-Star has been downloaded more than 20 million times.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Tolbert, an assistant professor researching faith and digital ethnography at Penn State Harrisburg, has a statement. “Because of the globalization potential of the Internet, people have access to belief traditions that were not previously easily accessible to them,” he said. In the United States, more and more people are identifying as “spiritual” but not “religious,” he noted, adding that the Internet has enabled these people to discover, select, and combine the spiritual traditions that suit them most agreed.
The curator of “Technoshamanism”, Inke Arns, recently said during a tour of the exhibition that contemporary artists have also recognized the widespread presence of esoteric spirituality in digital space. “I was wondering, ‘How is it that there is this strange interest in different parts of the world not only to reactivate ancestral knowledge but to combine it with technology?'” She said.
For artists, the answer is often due to fear for the environment, said Arns. “People are realizing that we are in a very dire situation,” she added, “through the burning of coal and fossil fuels. And it doesn’t stop. ”Old belief systems that were more in tune with nature, combined with new technology, gave artists a sense of hope in dealing with the climate crisis, she said.
While technological advances are often viewed as harmful to the environment, artists, indigenous activists, and hackers are trying to reclaim technology for their own esoteric uses, said Fabiane Borges, a Brazilian researcher and member of the Tecnoxamanismo network. This collective organizes meetings and festivals where participants use devices like self-hacked robots to connect with the belief systems of ancestors and nature.
In the Dortmund show, hope shimmers through in several works that envision a future for people beyond earth. Fifty prints by the British artist Suzanne Treister from the series “Technoshamanic Systems: New Cosmological Models for Survival” fill a wall of the museum and dream of spiritual possibilities for the survival of our species.
Treister’s neat, colorful paperwork depicts flying saucers and stars arranged in a Kabbalah tree of life diagram, as well as blueprints for imaginary scientific systems and alien architecture. While billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos see space as the next frontier for human expansion, Treister has presented a utopian alternative: space exploration as a process in which rituals and visions play a role as well as solar energy and artificial intelligence.
Many esoteric practices connect communities to a higher power, Arns said, which is why space plays a role in the exploration of spirituality in so many contemporary artists. “It establishes a connection between the microcosm and the macrocosm,” she added, creating “an idea of a world that does not only include the earth”.
Technologists have of course come up with a more digital way to enter new worlds: virtual reality. Many of the founders of VR were interested in psychedelic experiences, a common characteristic of shamanic rituals. (The recent boom in ayahuasca ceremonies, where participants drink a psychoactive brew, shows that the pull remains strong.) Researchers at the University of Sussex in England even used VR to replicate a magic mushroom hallucination.
In the “Technoshamanism” show in Dortmund, several works offer the viewer trippy visions. Morehshin Allahyari’s VR work “She Who Sees the Unknown” conjures up a sinister Djinn woman; At the request of the artist, the VR glasses can be worn lying down in the darkened room so that the evil spirit hovers ominously over the viewer. Another work, experienced through augmented reality glasses, leads the viewer through a meditative ritual in a gigantic paper mache shrine that weaves a spiral path of light with video holograms.
Instead of inventing their own virtual spiritual sites, other artists are trying to uncover the lost meaning of some pre-existing places. Tabita Rezaire, for example, whose website she describes as “infinity incarnated into a remedy”, shows a film installation that explores megalithic stone circles in Gambia and Senegal. In a film that is played on a flat screen TV in the museum floor, Rezaire examines the original purpose of the ancient sites through documentary interviews with their local guardians as well as with astronomers and archaeologists. Based on numerology, astrology and traditional African understanding of the cosmos, the interviews are overlaid in hypnotic CGI visualizations of space.
Technology and spirituality could also come together to preserve ancient cultural practices that might otherwise be lost, said Borges, the researcher. She recalled that at a 2016 festival organized by her network in Bahia, Brazil, teenagers with cell phones recorded a full moon ritual performed by members of the Pataxó indigenous community. The footage, showing Pataxó people speaking their ancient language in a trance, was later passed on to local university researchers who are working to expand a dictionary, Borges said.
Interactions between new tools and esoteric practices can be seen in all sorts of mystical practices, said Tolbert of Penn State. “Technology has always been a part of spirituality,” he noted, citing psychic media outlets that host their own Facebook groups and ghost hunters who use electromagnetic field detectors. “I don’t think most of them see a conflict in this,” he added.
So maybe, as the “Cyberwitches Manifesto” suggests, there are more similarities than one might expect between the hackers and the witches, the programmers and the clairvoyants. As Tolbert put it, “What is technology if not a way for individuals to find answers?”