Chanting on video chat is one of the oddest life experiences. Chanting can be difficult enough, though soothing once you get a hang of it, but online, with some people muted and others not, some people with good mics and others with poor ones, chants are awkward, arrhythmic and uneven. Since the start of physical distancing guidelines in the United States, I’ve now chanted in Jewish, Buddhist, progressive Christian, and shamanic traditions with various prayer and meditation groups online. Spiritual practice can be a balm for these times, when the World Health Organization recommends discussing safety in places of worship even as places of worship around the world close up shop for a while.
But maybe a collective form of individualism is part of the point. In 2003, the representatives of the Dalai Lama commissioned the artist Marina Abramović to choreograph Tibetan monks and nuns performing in a music festival in Bengalor, India. Her piece, “At the Waterfall” (2003), featured 108 individual videos, arranged like the old TV game show Hollywood Squares, of people chanting. Video of the installation at LIMA in Amsterdam shows a rhythmic cacophony of practitioners deep in their own practice. Viewers were provided with lounge chairs, where they could sit back and have their eyes and ears enveloped by the congregation.
Abramović’s most famous meditative work, of course, is the now iconic performance “The Artist is Present” (2010), hosted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The artist sat roughly six feet away and separated by a wooden table — if performed today, well in line with current physical distancing guidelines developed by public health officials — facing an attendee, as they locked eyes and sat in simple presence. The meditative spectacle attracted crowds who would line up outside the museum for a chance to sit with the artist. One person sat with her 26 times, describing the performance as “a transforming experience — it’s luminous, it’s uplifting, it has many layers, but it always comes back to being present, breathing, maintaining eye contact.”
What’s easy to forget about The Artist is Present is that it was also an online performance. Indeed, my primary experience of it was online. Thanks to a webcam set up by MoMA, viewing the performance didn’t require physical proximity. I would tune in most days, during periods of boredom or curiosity, just to see who was sitting and what was going on. Furthermore, the museum took photos of each of the sitters and arranged them, like a Zoom video conference, in a Flickr grid, with each face in a neat rectangle. This artistic experience, which so many attendees described in nearly spiritual terms, extended into digital space, mediated by screens in a way that was still relatively novel for a major museum at the time.
Many traditions of Buddhism are particularly suited for an era of social distancing. There is the gassho, a bow with hands pressed together like in Christian prayer. It is custom to bow to your meditation cushion, bow to your fellow meditators, bow in the midst of chanting, and bow after a sit, but not to shake hands, hug, or otherwise physically interact. Meditators in the Zen tradition sit zazen — meditation — facing away from each other and toward the wall. It is an ideal practice, in some ways, for a time when bodily health practices demand physical distance and mental health practices demand social closeness. But as shelter-in-place orders, lockdowns, curfews, and checkpoints kick in around the world to control the virus, even these innate practices of social distance are not enough.
Most mornings before the pandemic, I would sit in silence in a small meditation corner I’ve made for myself in my room. It is an inherently solitary practice, accompanied only by my breath, incense, photos of my ancestors, and my mala — a rosary-like string of 108 beads meant to aid meditation. Lately, however, I’ve had my laptop next to me, with a small circle of other meditators on Zoom. Our teacher rings the bell, I ring my own so I can experience its full resonance in person, and we all sit in silence in our respective rooms. Some turn off their cameras, others leave them on, and a few remain unmuted, their breaths gently swaying in and out through my speakers.
The events of the past few years — Brexit, Trump’s election, the rise of Duterte, Modi and Bolsonaro, the fall of Eastern Aleppo — have brought about a swift end to techno-utopianism. In the place of blind hope placed in viral social movements has come a growing awareness of memetic misinformation, cyberwarfare, hate mobs, human-bot media manipulation, and virality manufactured for political, commercial, and nihilistic ends. A recent Knight Foundation and Gallup study revealed that people in the United States by and large have negative views of how major internet platforms are affecting society. While there’s a slight partisan difference, both Democrats and Republicans expressed concerns about the spread of misinformation, data privacy, and abusive and hateful language. Andy Warhol, so inspired by the saintly iconography of his Catholic upbringing, was right that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame. What Warhol failed to mention was that his own fame also made him a target for violence.
As the world shuts down and all of us go indoors, it is to the internet we travel for solace, comfort, and community. Today, each of us is ensconced in square boxes — literally called user icons — on platforms like TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram which designed their algorithms and recommendation engines to make anyone internet famous for a brief moment. We gaze into our devices at people and worlds beyond the dreariness of our homes and bitterness of our self-isolation as spring approaches in the Northern Hemisphere. The emergence of spiritual circles online in the face of COVID-19 strikes me as the opposite of viral — a place to be still in the face of viral turbulence on the streets and in the air and viral turbulence on social media and the broader internet. These circles are small, intimate and private, a reminder that the internet as we know it today is like a modern-day megalopolis: one of good and ill, macro and familial, profane and sublime.
In 2007, the Guangzhou artist Cao Fei, adopting the screenname China Tracy, developed RMB City, an installation in Second Life designed to comment on the rapid urbanization of China, with references to structures like the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Shanghai and massive toilets in the Pearl River Delta that empty out into the ocean, where statues of Mao Zedong float around. As she noted in her artist statement, it was an act of “online urbanization,” “realized in a globalized digital sphere combining overabundant symbols of Chinese reality with cursory imaginings of the country’s future.” At the time, the idea of a global art world gathering online was fun and a little wacky. Today, as film festivals close, art auctions go online and museums develop virtual tours, we have no choice but to build an art world in the cloud.
Within two years, RMB City transformed from an elaborate art installation into a commentary on crisis. In the wake of the 2009 economic crash, China Tracy hosted “People’s Limbo” (2009), a series of interactive experiences involving Karl Marx, Lehman Bros., and the Taoist sage Lao Tzu engaged in dialogue about the historic time. It included one farcical moment where Karl Marx burns incense and bows deeply before the grave of Lehman Brothers, a meditative, spiritual moment of its own not lacking in irony, especially from the vantage point of today’s knowledge of China’s profound economic growth and full embrace of capitalism.
The internet has always been a source of refuge for those for whom geography has become a barrier, whether because of different abilities or a diasporic background. Los Angeles artist Johanna Hedva’s “Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory” (2015) explored ideas of visibility and invisibility and the affordances of the internet when the most iconic image of our current culture of protest is gatherings on the street. In 2014, a chronic condition confined them to bed just as the Black Lives Matter protests were picking up in Los Angeles. “I listened to the sounds of the marches as they drifted up to my window,” they wrote. “Attached to the bed, I rose up my sick woman fist, in solidarity,” as they thought about others in their respective beds. Their 2016 performance, “Sick Witch”, combined microaggressions they’ve heard with the imagery of an onryo, a traditional, vengeful spirit made popular in Korean and Japanese horror films. On the internet, Hedva could gather in protest and solidarity and bring forth their art.
And yet, strangely, as we go to the cloud to seek solace, we still risk exposing ourselves not just to misinformation (which is rampant) but to the virus itself. As so many public health officials remind us, phones are a frequent vector for disease. SARS-CoV-2 can live for days on an iPhone’s glass and metal, and we can transfer it into our bodies by holding the phone up to our face, or by touching our face after handling an infected phone. I am reminded of the process behind “Alchemy Studies,” a sculptural work made by New York artist Ingrid Burrington, who melted down an iPhone and reconstructed it into the shape of a crystal ball. Her intent was to comment on its talismanic presence and seeming omniscience, as she transformed “one all-seeing object of divination and control into another.” In a dinner conversation, Burrington relayed to me the danger of making the piece, because of how much dust she might have been breathing in.
If the phone is both social balm and bearer of toxins, if the city is both a transcendent space for solidarity and site of biological disaster, they are perfect symbols for the paradoxes of reality for which many forms of spirituality aim to offer answers, or at least comforts. Organized religion has been invoked in the name of slavery, settler-colonialism, and genocide. Powerful patriarchs use fear and guilt to collect wealth and ensure submission. But spiritual practices can also help us cultivate compassion for those in suffering, find peace in times of great anxiety, and connect across our common humanity and sentience.
Paradoxes are deeply embedded in many spiritual systems, from the Mayan concept of dualidad (duality) to the Taoist notion of yin and yang. In Tarot symbology, for instance, the Death card is followed by the wisdom of Temperance, the Hermit card is followed by the auspicious Wheel of Fortune. The Golden Dome School, which looks at intersections of art, science, and spirituality, , and Instagram tarot accounts have begun offering free, remote readings for people in uncertain times. I myself conducted a reading for a friend when they called me in the middle of a panic attack over the virus and its second-order effects encroaching on their life. “I want to consult the oracle,” they said, puffing rapidly and grasping their phone shakily. I calmed them down first with a guided heart meditation I picked up from my Vipassana meditation practice.
Through FaceTime, we decided to do a basic three-card spread of past, present, and future, as they shuffled their deck in their home and I conducted the interpretation from mine. They held up each card to their phone’s camera, and I talked through its symbologies as we discussed the possible meaning for their life. In so many ways, tarot is the perfect tool for artists working within the constraints of self-isolation. About the size of a phone, a deck is both visual and symbolic, memetic and remixable, ready for the intimacy of a video chat.
The funny thing about most video chat tools is that, by default, they show you to yourself, like a mirror within a larger hall of mirrors. Video chat apps create a quality of both portal and mirror, reflecting ourselves back in the very moment we are supposed to be engaging with the other. In fact, on video chat we never truly look into each others’ eyes — we look slightly down, at the screen, away from the camera itself. The experience is reminiscent of Nam June Paik’s “Buddha Watching TV,” (1974) part of a series of works where a Buddha statue faces a live cast of itself. I like the “Buddha Watching TV” iteration the most for its materiality — the Buddha’s head is set in dirt, its eyes cast downward in meditation. In the 1970s and 80s, when Paik began producing these works, it would have been unusual to watching oneself in live video. Now, it is something we do everyday. Now, like buddhas all of us, it is how we meditate.
In 1949, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers proposed the idea of the Axial Age, a period between roughly 800 and 200 BCE when new spiritual traditions — Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, Greek philosophy — that continue to have lasting influence with on our societies today formed, seemingly independently, across Eurasia. It is a disputed framework, which clearly erases shamanic and indigenous traditions which continue to this day, but two useful kernels stand out for me. The first is the idea that society was undergoing a major transition — from oral to written cultures, from kingdoms to empires — that necessitated new religious and philosophical systems, for better or for worse. The second is that organized religions and technologies — roads, vehicles, writing systems — so often go hand in hand.
When the fundamentals of our bodily and economic safety begin crumbling, many turn to philosophy, spirituality, and art for solace. Plague and pestilence haunted artists like Titian, Caravaggio, Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, Amedeo Modigliani, and Edvard Munch, and not surprisingly, their work often explicitly or implicitly touches on matters of the spirit. If there’s a new axial age, it will leap forth from our emptied highways and into our fiber optic cables and wifi radio waves. The spiritual practices evolving in early 2020 on the internet are an extension of the growing presence of religion, spirituality, shamanism, witchcraft, and philosophy in every nook and cranny of our digital city.
I am reminded of the words of People’s Limbo’s Karl Marx, discussing the necessities of the moment he, the Lehmans and Lao Tzu faced: “One must devote oneself to the stream of self-aware improvement of the self and the world.”
“Crisis,” he adds, “is the signal of a restart!”