A vertical screen showing a figure in a medieval-inspired dress, framed in a pixelated arch. To the right is a doorframe filled with perspex clouds held together in a grille structure. Behind is a computer terminal and a hanging painted curtain.

Ronnie Danaher:

Ronnie Danaher, 'iConfess', (2022). Photography by Jules Lister.

Exploring data, devices, sins and devotion, iConfess by Ronnie Danaher imagines a new religious movement in which digital data is an omnipotent god. The installation addresses contemporary concerns around our relationships with data and networked technologies.

Years ago I was asked what I thought defined my generation, and rather than admit that I wasn’t sure, I glibly replied that we click to accept the Terms and Conditions without ever reading them. My off-the-cuff definition felt personally, if not universally, accurate as a reflection of millennial disposition towards online activity, and if iConfess is anything to go by, it could well be a commandment of Danaher’s Dataism.

To enter iConfess, participants pass through a naively painted canvas of pixelated archways below clouds and a blue sky. Three arched doorways cut out of the canvas create a rudimentary rood screen, recalling both the aesthetic of early Nintendo Super Mario Bros games and a stage backdrop for a school production. The influence of Danaher’s Irish Catholic upbringing runs through the installation, with religious symbolism reimagined for a near-future dystopia. As Danaher explains, the rood screen creates a ‘liminal threshold’ and is a motif that reappears throughout iConfess. It features digitally in a short film and in three-dimensions as a wooden frame with pixelated clouds strung across a grid with neon yellow cord. The grid of clouds brings to mind the grille of the confession box. A suspended painting of a burgundy curtain confirms this allusion. The wood and acrylic screen and ersatz curtain do in fact conceal a confession booth, however, this one of Dataism, not Catholicism.

Those wishing to confess must kneel before a computer screen and keyboard, submitting their sins via an online form. ‘Dataism Confessional’ (2020) is the earliest element of the installation and was originally realised as part of arebyte Gallery’s hotel generation programme, for their arebyte On Screen platform. By kneeling before the computer screen, we can confess to the sins of Dataism which range from riffs on the cardinal sins (commonly known as the seven deadly sins), such as sloth due to ‘Not devoting enough time to your devices’, to novel sins such as ‘Disabling all cookies’, using the mouse to drag along a point on a sliding scale to indicate the degree of our transgressions. The requirement to click through the form’s dropdown fields is reminiscent of much earlier web-based art practices, such as Alexei Shulgin’s ‘Form Art’ (1997). An early piece of net art, ‘Form Art’ comprised of a never-ending series of checkboxes, dialogue boxes, menus and radio buttons usually found in digital forms, questionnaires and surveys. Shulgin’s forms are devoid of context other than the form itself, so that all clicks are meaningless, and all we can do is hop from one blank form to the next. However, while Shulgin’s labyrinth of HTML conventions was designed for directionless navigation, Danaher’s form does have a destination. Once participants have inputted their Dataism sins, they are told how they can make amends and be absolved. My penance for ‘Blocking access to your personal data’ is the terrifying instruction to ‘Click on all the ads you see online for the next day’.

A computer terminal, keyboard and mouse lit up green. The screen shows the start page for ‘Dataism Confessional’. In the background is a large green cushion, perspex clouds glinting yellow, and a vertical screen with a figure shown in medieval-inspired dress.
Ronnie Danaher, ‘iConfess’, (2022). Photography by Jules Lister.

Dataism’s sins destabilise my own preconceived notions of good and bad in our digital lives. To anyone who has felt guilty about dismissing their self-set time limit on Instagram or looked in horror at their average daily screen time, the idea that not spending enough time on your devices is a sin seems confusing. The ‘confessions’ made by young people in Danaher’s short film set my digital moral compass further into a spin. Danaher worked with a group of young people during workshops with the University of Leeds Saturday Art Club and the Youth Collective at Leeds Art Gallery. Together they explored what the sins of Dataism might be. In the film, they confess to transgressions against screen culture while dressed in bizarre, veiled costumes cobbled together from tassels and odd pieces of fabric. The apparel and sins were devised by the young people based on their own experiences of guilt related to online activity and their devices. They confess to not sharing every experience, photograph and video they make online, and to upping their privacy settings. They do so whilst dressed in outfits rivalling those of Instagram’s Greedy Peasant, whose videos reimagine the medieval high gothic through a queer lens. Despite their outlandish appearance, these mundane confessions lend a sinister undertone to Danaher’s vision of Dataism. Their sins are minor inconveniences within the wider flow and accumulation of data. These regretful admissions are a palpable demonstration of how, as Byung-Chul Han states in Psychopolitics, the digital has become a new order of domination. [1]

The film is the focal point of the installation, projected onto a vertical rectangular screen resembling a monolithic smartphone. The pixelated rood screen appears again, this time providing a threshold to the interior of Notre Dame Cathedral, digitally rendered on Minecraft and pulled from YouTube by Danaher. Within this divine digital space we encounter devout followers of Dataism at confession and digital heretics setting fire to 5G towers in Birmingham. The confessions of those dedicated to Dataism are contrasted with found footage from a ‘Stop 5G’ Facebook group whose theories further unsettle my sense of morality. Neither the values of Dataism nor the destructive actions and conspiracy of the digital heretics feel relatable, and I realise that I am on the outside of this generation, looking in.

iConfess confronts us with values defining a cohort of young people who have never known life without the internet and smartphones. Behind the theatricality of the Catholic aesthetics and the dated church interiors from Danaher’s childhood, there is an anthropological glimpse of the dystopian present which is already defining a new generation.

iConfess ran from 9 to 19 June at Assembly House, Leeds. It was made possible with funding from Arts Council England and Leeds Inspired.

Zara Worth is an artist, writer and researcher from Yorkshire.

[1] Byung-chul Han, Psychopolitics, trans. Eric Butler (London: Verso, 2017), 12.

Published 06.08.2022 by Eloise Bennett in Reviews

1,017 words