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Issue 212

Jeremy Shaw’s Exit Strategy for a Technology-Driven World

The artist’s new immersive installation at Centre Pompidou explores ecstatic states as a means of reconnecting with human empathy

BY Francesca Gavin in EU Reviews , Reviews | 24 APR 20

Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock examines the psychological consequences of acceleration on society and the individual. ‘Phase Shifting Index’, Jeremy Shaw’s first major solo museum show in France, plays with a future in which humanity has failed to keep up with this shift and is trying to retreat from post-technological extinction.

The exhibition opens with three works from the series ‘Towards Universal Pattern Recognition’ (2016–ongoing), in which prismatic acrylic lenses are placed upon found silver gelatine photographs. The images show people throwing their arms in the air, eyes closed, while speaking. It is unclear whether they are praying but they are certainly in an ecstatic spiritual state, which Shaw emphasizes through the kaleidoscopic shape of the lens. These cultish depictions lead into a darkened mezzanine space, where the centrepiece of the show unfolds: Phase Shifting Index (2020), an immersive, seven-screen installation that can be viewed in its entirety from a raised platform or as individual film works from plinth-like benches.

Jeremy Shaw, Phase Shifting Index, 2020, installation view, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Courtesy: the artist and KÖNIG, Berlin/London; photograph: Timo Ohler

Each video depicts a group of figures performing ritualistic movements and dance sequences. The Violet Lux, for instance, resembles an amateur theatre routine from the late 1980s; Countdown is a take on lo-fi VHS documentation of hardcore skate girls; while Quantum Modern is inspired by early improvisational contemporary dance. Initially, the films appear to document subcultures translated as ritual performances, but closer examination reveals they are layered with fiction. The Alignment Movement, for example, resembles black and white footage of exercise routines from the 1950s; in fact, the jerky movements are those of clubbers at Berghain in Berlin. Similar to Shaw’s Quantification Trilogy (2014–18), the work follows an overarching science-fiction narrative about a wireless AI hive of ‘quantum humans’ trying to reconnect their cyborgian bodies to the lost spark of faith that was fundamental to human survival. We watch as they attempt to self-induce parallel realities and reconnect to the human.

Jeremy Shaw, Phase Shifting Index, 2020, video still. Courtesy: the artist and KÖNIG, Berlin/London

The music – a collaboration between Shaw and composer Todd Shillington – builds up to fill the space with a rumbling heavy bass and, over the course of 25 minutes, distorts your sense of time. Finally, the performers on all seven screens start to synchronize their choreography to a backdrop of strobing lights and electronic music. Just as you think this cathartic moment is the climax, however, Shaw raises the bar and the screens fill with acidic, disintegrating datamosh imagery of dancers seemingly becoming one with technology itself. Layers of movement and bodies are compressed into a psychedelic soup accompanied by ripped electronic noises. Ultimately, everything breaks down into ambient calm as the screens fill with coloured light and dust, like floating post-human DNA.

Jeremy Shaw, Phase Shifting Index, 2020, installation view, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Courtesy: the artist and KÖNIG, Berlin/London; photograph: Timo Ohler

Phase Shifting Index is powerful not only because it portrays transcendent experience but because it induces that same experience in its viewers. The different stages of the video – the documentary, the cathartic dance, the meltdown, the ambient conclusion – echo earlier works, such as Liminals (2017), which feature similar footage of ritualistic dancing. But Shaw’s questioning and validation of the ecstatic – the psychotropic experience, the physicality of dance, the devotion to religion, cult or subculture – is taken to a different level here. We are not just watching hypnosis; we are being hypnotized. Phase Shifting Index is immersive in the true sense of the word: we merge with the work and are extinguished by our absorption. 

Main image: Jeremy Shaw, Phase Shifting Index, 2020, installation view, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Courtesy: the artist and KÖNIG, Berlin/London; photograph: Timo Ohler

Francesca Gavin is a writer, curator and Contributing Editor for Kaleidoscope and Twin, based in London, UK.