Last month, Marco Barotti’s solo exhibition Rituals of Wasted Technology took place at Silent Green. Smack in the middle of the domed hall of the former crematorium was a dark, reflective pool. Black reflections rippled across the chamber. White satellites with extended speakers calmly treaded its waters, appearing as mechanized swans—they emitted sounds of birds and frogs, as if to suspend viewers’ disbelief that this, somehow, is natural. Continuing with the blending of nature and technology, Barotti installed several large, recycled WiFi sector antennae atop the pool, which he likens (in name) to primates (this is Apes, 2022). Unlike the soothing swans, the Apes tilt rapidly back and forth, rattling with the force of their fuming anger. Simultaneously artificial and organic, these mechanized animals were then triumphed by a set of screens, placed above their frenzied antennae.
In perfect unison, these screens flash the number of different digital exchanges undertaken in a single day. Running digits indicate the total number of INSTAGRAM PHOTOS UPLOADED, TINDER SWIPES, CYBER ATTACKS and the like before finally harmonizing, offering the cryptic mantra, DIGITAL WELLBEING—a message of goodwill that calms the apes to the point that they slow down, resting until the flashing of the screens begins anew.
What does this cybernetic zoo—placed together for the first time in Rituals of Wasted Technology—have to do with numeric sequences and simulated environments, let alone rituals? If we read his work from the point of view of sacrifice—a particularly evocative form of ritual—Barotti makes an uncomfortable claim: technology is a ritual for which nature is sacrificed. This is an interesting point, since platforms such as Instagram and Tinder ban the symbolic interpretations of their users and, therefore, do not support rituals. But they do thrive off of habits. In doing so, Barotti invites us to ask: what is a ritual? This, of course, depends on the question’s recipient. Whenever I hear someone throw that term around, it’s usually in the context of a proactive gesture performed for the sake of making, or upholding, meaning. But it’s not just that alone.
The word for ritual in Hebrew, polchan, shares a root with pelach—a piece; a slice. It implies that every ritual also demands, at times even goes as far as taking away, something from its practitioners. Abraham and Isaac could easily attest to that. So can the millions of animals slaughtered as offerings.
It’s a bit different nowadays, Barotti asserts. Rituals in the form of a wasted and wasteful technology have become a pacifying commodity. Many people are no longer willing to take part in rituals that involve sacrifices, but love their potential to caress the mind and heart. The rapid numbers of clicks and likes that Barotti presents us with attest to that. So when it comes to self-care, we want to have our cake and eat it, too. As a result, real-life organizations dependent on rituals are now few, and are often regarded as archaic: attendance of religious services is in decline; so are events of constructed collective remembrance orchestrated by nation-states. It’s true that much has changed with the onslaught of the self-care ritual of wasted technologies, but let’s start by speculating that one reason for the downfall of ritual’s collective usage can be found in the seismic gap between how individuals define rituals, and how institutions do. Maybe rituals encouraged by institutions that depend on the consent of imagined communities can only exist in the past tense. Or then again, maybe not—the flashing screens, be they in Barotti’s artwork or the ones in our respective pockets, invite us to indulge in immediate tendencies verging on addiction. Gratification is the bread and butter of technological interfaces. In fact, we could go as far as to say that DIGITAL WELLBEING does not mediate the emergence and continuation of rituals, but, rather, the maintenance of habits and the monetization of boredom. Rituals of Wasted Technology is a reminder that technology is the predominant mediator, enabler, and mode of communicating for so many of our contemporary rituals. But it is exactly technology’s prevalence that changes how rituals are practiced and regarded, since so many have been altered to accommodate technology, and not the other way around. Herein lies the issue: no sacrifice can be made with technology. The metamorphosis of the biological to the synthetic, as in the case of Swans and Apes, depletes the soul of a living organism, making their symbolic offerings obsolete. From top to bottom, Barotti has constructed a symbolic contraption that simply alludes to our collective substitution of meaning, but not its creation. Potentiality is, to use his own words, wasted.
This doesn’t mean we can’t still try. Shortly thereafter, a panel discussion convened to ask how technologies affect daily rituals, and how the latter influences artistic practices. After a brief round of introductions, curators Pauline Doutreluingne and Keumhwa Kim introduced the participants. Researcher Asia J. Biega discussed how the gamification of technology is designed and coded, and the art historian Dorothea von Hantelmann offered an analysis of the effects of capitalism on rituals.
But my attention was drawn to a wandering figure who had suddenly appeared. Out of the blue. It trotted between the visitors. Red, blue, and with beautiful braids twirling between black cables and a leather harness, a humanoid cyborg said hello. Protektorama toxica, who is cared for by the artist J.P. Raether, softened the audience. There was a real need of this technological entity to kindle connections between audience members, rather than botch them: Protektorama’s kindness to their audience inverts Barotti’s artwork, which stages users as a ritualistic offering of data to the machine. Protektorama asked us to whip out our phones. We did that. Protektorama requested that we type in an address of a dangerous website. We did that as well. Hurdling over some cyberware warnings later, our devices acted as speakers to Protektorama’s microphone, and its voice reverberated across the dome as a great prophet. There is still, they reminded me, a love in connecting people. All it takes is a savvy cyborg, and a provocative, mechanized zoo.