Achieving Spirituality in New Digital Worlds and Systems

Text by Jenson Gabriel Tan
Photos by Taketo Kobayashi

Discussion, 30 May 2020

This discussion explores the position of spirituality, philosophy and politics based on a conversation with Taketo Kobayashi and Tulika Ahuja who recently put up DIGITAL G-O-D. Using the medium of print, the exhibition focused on visual art experiences based on real and imagined worlds.

“We cannot go back to hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but we can learn something from it. Technology is part of human evolution. We are the technology. We are outsourcing our evolution to technology. If we want to go beyond human, we have to go with technology. But for that, technology can expand with humankind so we have to be more mature to use technology in the right way. If we can use technology the right way, we can solve many problems in the world.”

— Taketo Kobayashi

Being reliant has made us subsume into digital culture and digitisation. While a current trend, this was not exactly new. In fact, this phenomenon of technological advancement had been foreseen by the Italian Futurists in the early 1900s. Many of their architectural sketches, while deemed far-fetched during their time, seems relatively normal or everyday in our current era. In that aspect, examining a “future” form of spirituality might not be too far off after all. Just like the novel turned television series published in 2001, American Gods, the replacement of spirituality with the digital world had given rise to a new form of philosophy, ethics, and behaviour. Based on the narrative, the New Gods take on the form of media, globalisation, and technology. Referencing the fictional depiction of a new form of “religion” or spirituality through media, many are undeniably leaning towards an alternate form of spirituality from those of traditional religion. Technological advancement has also seen a more connected world through social media and the internet. 3D printing began speeding up laborious tasks such as building houses or artillery. The idea and concept of “digitisation” could refer to both digital migration of information and workflow, or the complete absorption of methodology from an analog to a digital format.

However, this phenomenon of digitisation that expounds a new form of spirituality would pose a few questions. What is the limit of digitisation? How far would spirituality found in the digital world go before it becomes an obsession and eventually a cult? Who is responsible for misuse? Would reality be foretold by the fictional work that had been made to talk about this? These unaccounted questions seem to ring constantly in our contemporary world and the answers given by different parties seem to become increasingly muddled. With that in mind, I turned to an exhibition curated with the ideas of digitisation in mind.

Curated by Singapore-based Japanese post digital artist, Taketo Kobayashi (or otherwise known as humanoise) and written and programmed by Singaporean curator, Tulika Ahuja, DIGITAL G-O-D was an exhibition that aimed to negotiate the individual spirituality and philosophies that influence artists in a digitising world. The curatorial intention resonated with the questions I had in mind about spirituality and digitisation and through the conversation with Taketo and Tulika, I gained a new-found appreciation for the spirituality of the individual in this digitising age, while living simultaneously with traditional religion around them.

Relating to digitisation and digital platforms in art, I questioned how this phenomenon had seeped into art practice and how Taketo, as a curator, mediated the situation. While spirituality came in multiple forms such as chakras, temples, pilgrimages, mandalas, Taketo was quick to add in that many of the works were sure to use symbols that were not recognisable from the vernacular of traditional religion. This was done with the intention of not denying the existence of traditional religion that had spanned across time. With this consideration, he established the primordial function of religion was to bring peace and morality to people and individual non-vernacular symbols were a form of spiritual experience encountered by the individual artists.

Understanding the signs and symbols as an important point of religion and spirituality, Taketo added that the curated list of artists was more well-known in subculture circles as opposed to those who showed more in  fine art galleries. This was done with an intention to use the vernacular of popular culture to reach a wider and hopefully younger audience. He used a U2 concert that he attended as an exemplification of pop culture’s influence on a mass public, especially those that were inherently fans of U2. As a pop culture icon, U2 had been using their platform to spread the word of their activism including issues on poverty, and social injustice. The use of pop culture ascertains the fact that accessible vernacular would definitely reach a wider audience in spite of esoteric topics like spirituality or philosophy.  

Speaking of the history of religious idols from the classical era, Tulika linked the phenomenon and importance of these idols with the material used to craft these idols. Instead of brass, gold, and marble in traditional classical sculpture, and conventional paint and pigment for paintings and print-making, the show explores the materiality found within our contemporary, technologically advanced era through 3D printed effects and 2D printed artworks with the MIMAKI printer. This exploration was particularly intriguing, especially with the essence of the artists pursuing their personal individual spiritual experience through art and creating a new symbol for themselves.

In an attempt to understand Taketo’s influence, he brought me back to the Jōmon period, which is dated around circa. 14,000 – 300 BCE. The period was known for its earthenware and vessels and the use of natural materials as a way of living in a hunter-gatherer community. The use of the materials around them in this pre-historic period could have meant that the people of that period knew how to improvise with their natural resources and were creative in using what the Earth had given. What came from the Earth, would eventually return to the Earth. Similarly, Taketo quips that it is inevitable that even in art and creative pursuits, we are advancing in technology. There is no point in going back to the hunter-gatherer era.

There is no surprise that many are reluctantly driven onto the digital train despite having absolutely no clue on its use, resulting in a forced digital migration for many. Just recently, due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore cancelled all masses until further notice and replaced them with a livestream accessible via YouTube or their website. The displacement had caused multiple generations of cyber-illiterate individuals attempting to stream the online masses, resulting in a forced digital migration as we see. Eventually, you cannot run away, but only be absorbed into a world dependent on digital technology for transnational communication. Regarding the ethics though, Taketo asserted that technology is inanimate but human activity is dynamic and with intention. He held the belief that if we focused on researching ways to use technology to end climate change, it could be possible. Yet, due to human decision and politics that leads to a global inaction.

Despite it all, we seem to be in an endless loop, constantly stuck in a rut with issues like climate change, constantly plaguing our Earth. In our current journey with spirituality within a digital world, what constitutes as peace is neither observed nor resolved. As reality begins to imitate fiction, we begin to see information being harvested for capitalism, a central point in Andrew Yang’s 2020 presidential campaign. We also begin to see the blurring lines of ethics in social media and digital communications within the internet. Are we owning or even giving necessary consent for our personal data to be used in big data research and marketing and should we be entitled to its capital gains? What is fake news, and who is responsible for it? The government, the individual, or the platform? The debates are endless. Perhaps these unresolved issues would result in our doomed end. Beyond capitalism, it seems that spirituality within oneself had been left out and the search for peace and harmony in an era of the shrinking world had been forgotten.

As much as digitisation would give birth to a new era and new possibilities in the world for problem solving, great maturity and ethics is needed but missing in this global crisis. Back to my questions, limitations of technology (ie. cloning, 3D printing weapons) and ethical boundaries (ie. cloning, human consciousness transplant) for the use of technology and information within a digital world are still either inexistent or unclear. Access to information by tech-agencies and the possible limits of mechanisation and robotisation might still be blurred today and yet, these issues have been pursued by pop culture in the form of books, movies, and other scripts. In the beginning, I had mentioned how reality had begun meeting fiction in the corridor. Maybe, we might never learn.

Political inaction seems to be the crux of every matter. Even pop stars and icons are using their platforms to spread awareness of these issues, but perhaps unless you own the influence of a Kardashian, these issues still exist. Perhaps a new-found spirituality would be a viable factor to move the world forward. As DIGITAL G-O-D had shown, individuals are capable of creating their own brand of spirituality through themselves, through digital mediums, and through any form of belief. Hopefully, if enough people believe in peace, harmony and climate change and begin to start small ripples within their own local communities, we may not be so doomed after all.

Jenson Gabriel Tan is a corporate creative strategist. He believes in manifesting change and consistency.

© 2020 sand magazine and the author