“Religion is an ur-medium. Right from the start, through the demand for repeatability embodied by ritual, religion was not only bound to media, but was itself a medium.”
-Boris Groys and Peter Weibel
The worlds of Art and Religion have been inextricably interwoven since the dawn of the Human Story. Palaeolithic cave paintings are cited as cornerstones of human evolution, while our capacity to produce abstract symbolic images paved the way for us to develop written language and most of what we now call culture. Excavated remains of prehistoric burials suggest that early on our ancestors began to conceive of life after death, drafting the blueprints for the concept of an immortal soul. These devotional burials, with tools, objects, flowers and ornamentation deliberately designed, attest to a formative relationship between aesthetics, the afterlife, and concepts of the divine.
Art historians Boris Groys and Peter Weibel suggest that “Religion was from the outset not only tied to media, but was and is itself a medium.” They suggest that the very promise of technology, “the overcoming of time and space and the promise of eternal life”, was formed within the construction of Religion/s in the past. Beginning with stone age drawing and painting all the way through to television, radio, internet and now virtual reality, transmission was and remains to be the lingua franca of religion as an ur-medium. Weibel refers to this medial infrastructure as theotechnology: finding the root source of all technological advancements within the precincts of the religious imaginary.
Much of what we know about ancient religion/s comes to us in the form of transmedial artefacts, left buried or hidden for centuries or aeons, either intentionally or unintentionally by their users or makers. Ruins of material culture allow us to imagine how our predecessors made world and how the worlds they made make our world. Italian philosopher Federico Campagna suggests that we are currently living at the end of an historical age, whose ruins will be extracted and deciphered by post/future aliens as they attempt to make world anew. Campagna invites artists and cultural producers to
“think about what they are leaving behind of this segment in time in terms of its potential as a ruin – that is the potential of what we leave for inspiring, aiding, offering some-thing on the basis of which post-future people will be able to start their own narration of the world.”
He suggests that new civilizations always look to those that preceded them when designing and defining how they will make world anew. He ushers forth the invitation for contemporary producers to direct our intention to the post/future, both to chronicle the world we inherit, but also to propose blueprints and alternatives to the ominous futures being woven in real time.
RUINS is a minifestival of time-based art, imagined and produced by [M]Dudeck in collaboration with the British Association for the Study of Religion, to be premiered at the 2021 conference, From Religious Studies to the Study of Religion/s: Disciplinary Futures for the 21st century . I have followed Campagna’s suggestion, and assembled together a selection of ten artworks, that meditate broadly upon the roles of myth and religion in the Anthropocene, presented as candidates to be ruins for the post/future. RUINS excavates the varied means through which contemporary artists re-mix, re-construct and uproot myths and religion from the past and catapult them forth into alternate futures.
Sharon Alward’s Receiving presents video documentation from her 1998 durational performance installation St. John The Baptist. Here, the artist, wearing her signature neon-light plexiglass angel wings, sat upon a rotating pedestal while ketchup from a mechanical pump dripped atop her head in a steady rhythm for the entire day for five days in total. The video, as a ruin, incorporates the artists own text spoken overtop of the performance documentation, to produce a hybrid that is compelling and immersive. The artists’ exploration of dream imagery surrounding the archetype of St. John the Baptist, the bear-cult of the goddess Artemis, and the feminine nature of God collaborate with the documentation of a demanding durational performance nesting questions of hospitality as a ritualized, theatrical dimension and the notion of Receiving as a spiritual or religious act.
Oreet Ashery’s Dancing With Men documents a performance in 2003, wherein the queer Jewish performance artist, dressed as an orthodox Jewish man in order to gain access to the annual celebration of Lag B’Omer at Meron Mountain in the north of Israel. This was a secret rite from the annals of Orthodox Judaism, wherein only ordained male-bodied participants are welcomed to “dance, laugh and be happy” whilst commemorating the death of second-century Kabbalist Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Ashery subverts the (hetero) patriarchal exclusivity of the event through (sacred) gender alchemy, using queer tools from drag culture to indirectly access an otherwise inaccessible experience. Ashery has performed several artworks in orthodox drag, and her persona is only visible for a brief few seconds near the end of the short film, but for the viewer unfamiliar with her male-bodied avatar, her presence remains hidden in the patchwork of beards. The video exposes the ecstasy not only of the secret rite, but also of Ashery’s ability to subvert the patriarchal protocols that previously had forbid her entry.
Richard Ashrowan’s 2010 film Alchemy features acclaimed performance artists Alastair MacLennan and Sandra Johnston responding to and collaborating with a primeval landscape in the Scottish Borders at the invitation of Ashrowan. Meditating upon the works of the 12th century Scottish alchemist, astrologer, mathematician and magician Michael Scott, Ashrowans’ camera follows the two contemporary subjects performatively probing the timeless wilderness, documented and sculpted in the media of video, whilst extracts of Scott’s medieval alchemical texts are spoken atop as incantations. Ashrowan presents us with ruins layered atop of ruins in an immersive investigation of the uncanny, the unseen, the felt and the imagined.
Silvia Battista’s Spirits Read Foucault presents us with a new form of introspective theatre, wherein the artist invites the audience to “dismember” themselves, under her auditory and digital supervision. Battisa guides the viewer through a visualization in their own mind – subverting the medium of performance and video (where the focal point is typically on the artist or the media) and instead directs the viewer through a reflection upon the notion of spiritual death and the visceral and psychic transformations that happens when we ritually and metaphorically shed our own skins. Viewers are asked to read her introductory message prior to undergoing the experience, and a chapter the artist has written, as published in The Performances of Sacred Places (which she has also edited) is provided for those willing to go deeper into the experience.
Kordae Henry’s Earth Mother Sky Father invites us to witness a site-specific ritual performance (featuring street dancer Storyboard P) in a hybrid Afrofuturist utopia replete with immersive electro haze beats created by music duo Shabazz Palaces and woven together by Henry. The film transports us to Central Africa in the year 2030, where the Democratic Republic of the Congo has regained control of its resources, and is “no longer exporting precious minerals, but refining raw materials on Afrikan land and building wealth from the ground.” What follows is an Afrofuturist ritual – hovering between past, present, future and post/future – a summoning that anoints resource extraction as ceremony aligned also a political performance of sovereignty. It is a ritual, where the God of Rare Earth is summoned forth and acknowledged, where the extraction of minerals is made holy in a post-colonial, post/future sacred rite.
Louise Milne’s Hypnos is a dream film, an immersive multi-layered katabasis, wherein an ancient Egyptian poem narrates us through storm, radio, memory and the otherworld. Milne’s research into the prehistory and nature of dreams directly informs her practise as an experimental film-maker, as she attempts to capture the haunting, layered immersion of the dream-world in the time-based medium of Super8 merged with HD. We are carried through this cacophony of sound and visions, lights and worlds – populated with spirits, elements and symbols – through several incantations, in unspoken languages that speak to us from deeper places. Hypnos presents us with the dream as a ruin, an artefact of a moment that lives outside of time and memory, and chronicles our attempts to inscribe its impermanence.
Larissa Sansour’s In Vitro was Denmark’s official contribution for the 58th international Venice Biennale, which was presented as a single channel video installation with accompanying sculptural installation. The film is set in a post-apocalyptic future, in an underground bunker converted into an orchard in biblical Bethlehem, where the artist was born in Palestine. The film’s opening scene depicts the moment of ecological/historical destruction, where a tsunami of black oil floods the ancient streets of the biblical city and leads us into to the underground bunker. The split-screen film, shot all in black and white, chronicles a poetic dialogue between two scientists living in the bunker – 70 year old Dunia on her deathbed and 30 year old Alia, her successor — engaged in an intimate dialogue about memory, exile and nostalgia as they begin to imagine repopulating the earth and reclaiming contested lands after annihilation.
Skawennati’s She Falls for Ages is a machinima – a cinematic production using real-time computer graphics engines – that retells the Haudenosaunee (Mohawk) creation story in a hybrid form of Indigenous Futurism. The sci-fi virtual world is made using Second Life, a device she employed for her popular TimeTraveller™ Series, which featured a young Mohawk in the year 2121 travelling back in time to live through critical events in indigenous history. She Falls for Ages merges sci fi with traditional indigenous knowledge, and presents the progenitor species of all life on planet earth as a technologically advanced society living elsewhere in our universe. Skawennati uses modern sci-fi to tell an old story in a new way, while actively engaging with the future as landscape and radical imagination as a decolonial device.
Hege Tapio is a bioartist, and Humanoil is a multimedia project of which this video is just one chapter. Humanoil: The Last Oil, departs from her earlier project Humanfuel: The New Oil, which featured the artist creating a biofuel produced in the lab from her own belly fat. Humanoil takes this stunning artwork to a new level, presenting oil produced by her own body fat as a new luxury product, presented as part of a new ritual of communion, where the artist as priest serves a small group of acolytes the oil in a Eucharistic rite. Tapio reminds us that the extraction of human oil bears an ancient and long-lasting mythic presence, but like many other artists here, she brings it into the future by producing a new liturgy around it. Her invocations ask the audience to consider the human as resource, as opposed to extractor, and she creates a new religion around “the new oil” with instructions on how to re-write our current ecological narcissism through the creation of new rituals of extraction.
Lu Yang’s The Great Adventure of Material World Knight was originally a game-artwork adapted into a film by the acclaimed Chinese multimedia artist known for merging the worlds of anime and video game art into hybrid immersive installations. Lu Yangs’ sci-fi future involves intelligent life evolving into three broad categories: 1) Human Clones, 2) Exoskeleton-enhanced biomechanimal synthesis cyborgs and 3) AI powered humanoid robots. These three species of intelligent life fight and struggle in this hybrid of a video game and a film, through a series of religious, scientific and philosophical questions with all the pulse, aesthetics and speed of pop culture media. The viewer is narrated through a succession of chapters wherein the avatar/protagonist of the video game encounters gods, demons and other entities which he must wrestle with to acquire abilities to navigate the material world of consciousness.
RUINS will be accessible online from Sept. 1 – Nov. 30, 2021, after which the site will be dismantled and the artworks will digitally erode. Please consider contributing to the time-capsule by sharing your comments below each artwork after you witness them, or starting conversations and continuing them. The website before completion will be thoroughly documented and all marginalia/discourse will be archived and transformed into a ruin of a ruin for the post/future.
Thank you for your courage, and commitment.
 Boris Groys and Peter Weibel, Medium Religion: Faith, Geopolitics, Art (Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2009), 41.
 Ibid, 41.
 RIBOCA. “Federico Campagna, “The End of the World(s)” YouTube Video, 1:14:25, June 25, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxORkFUNpE8