States of Trance

Jeremy Shaw’s films tend to defy conventional markers of linear time. In the first of Shaw’s Quantification Trilogy, Quickeners (2014), we see footage of people shaking their bodies in a primal ecstatic dance while a voiceover tells us we’re seeing images from a distant future in which society has been fully digitized and quantified. Similarly, the other films in the trilogy tell us of a distant future, but often do so with footage veiled by the distinct retro-crackle of old VHS tapes. Jeremy Shaw’s Quantification Trilogy was shown in 2020 at Julia Stoschek Collection, Berlin.

Exhibition view: Phase Shifting Index at Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2020
© Image Timo Ohler

Julia: It was great to re-watch the Quantification Trilogy ahead of this conversation. Watching these films again, it seemed like the last film in the trilogy almost foreshadowed this new reality of ours. It’s set in a time where people have lost their sense of community. Everyone is completely isolated.

Jeremy: I don’t think I foresaw anything quite like the current situation, but yes, there definitely is a narrative of togetherness and isolation that unfolds throughout the trilogy. In the first film, Quickeners, we witness a marginalized future community that is all about re-establishing collective spiritual experience. Over the course of the following two films, we learn about societies that are becoming more solitary as faith diminishes and technology takes hold. Phase Shifting Index is a seven channel video installation. Each of the independently operating films contains its own narrative set at various points in time on various media. As you mention, the work deals with similar themes to the Quantification Trilogy—with groups of people attempting to physically alter their reality through embodied movement practices and belief. But after twenty minutes or so, an additional soundtrack floods the entire space and the disparate films begin to unravel into chaos that then culminates in a synchronized choreography across all screens. So, there are a lot more moving parts than the previous films I’ve made. It’s seven unique narratives on seven screens that share a synced choreographic climax and rupture. The way I worked on the project is probably why I’m not having such a difficult time adjusting to the lockdown. I was spending twelve to sixteen hours a day on it for the past nine months, largely self-isolated. 

Julia: I cannot wait to go see it in Paris when it reopens. But maybe we should start by establishing where we are right now. I’m at my home in Westend, practicing social distancing with the help of my son. Are you also in Berlin, Jeremy?

Jeremy: Yes, I’m in my studio, which is about five minutes away from my house, in Kreuzberg.

Julia: It feels strange that we are both in Berlin but nevertheless have to do our interview online. In some ways, this city stands for many of the interests you and I share. We both love electronic and rave music, for instance. Over the past few years, you and I have probably met more on dancefloors than at exhibition openings, which I love. For me, my appreciation for music has definitely changed and transformed a few times. For starters, MTV was incredibly important for my childhood. I grew up in a small town in Bavaria. There was just nothing to do so MTV became my window to the world. I was glued to it. Looking back, I probably started out less interested in music itself than in the narrative that surrounded it. The focus on the music itself came later. Electronic music can often do without mainstream glamour and celebrity culture. Once I did learn to appreciate dance music for itself, however, it was an intense experience.

Jeremy: Well, MTV, or more the Canadian version which was called “Much Music,” is also largely responsible for my early interest in pop music. When I was young, it was often music videos that drew me in, maybe even more so than the records and radio. This is something that stayed with me—I watched music videos religiously from about the age of six or seven through my teens and twenties. Their influence can still be felt in my work today. But music, in general, was all-consuming in my youth. I went through so many phases and music was almost always at the core of these changes. So many formative experiences and friendships are a result of connections to music. I played the bassoon very early on and then took up guitar as a teenager before buying a sampler in the late 90s and starting to really make my own music and records from there.

Julia: I hope we can remember the sadness of missing music and community after all this is over. Maybe it will help us remember how all these things we are taught to see as distractions are actually what we miss the most. For both of us, our interest in music has been an individual and a collective thing at different times in our lives.

Phase Shifting Index (stills), 2020; seven-channel video installation, multi-channel sound, 35:19 min

Jeremy: When I first moved to Berlin, one thing I found really inspiring about the music, and specifically club culture, was how incredibly mixed the crowds were. It was far less rigid in the sense of age and affiliation than anything I had been experiencing in North America or England in the years since going to actual raves. In Berlin you found a super wide cross-section of people drawn to the same, still relatively underground music. Dancing regularly is so much more ingrained in the culture at large here, which is something I truly love about this city.

Julia: I absolutely agree. What I love so much about electronic music in Berlin—about a place like Berghain, for example—is that you can be in a crowd and completely alone at the same time. To me, that choice between solitude and togetherness gives me an incredible sense of freedom. Where else in our lives do we have this ability to choose? And I wonder how these themes play into an earlier work of yours that is also in the collection—Best Minds, from 2007. We see these large slow-motion shots of young men dancing at a straight-edge hardcore concert, but it’s all set to a meditative ambient soundtrack. I find this video hauntingly beautiful and I was fascinated to learn about the straight-edge context. We know that these kids were not drinking alcohol to help them drop their inhibitions. They got themselves into this kind of intense, altered state of mind mostly through dancing and music. I think your piece suggests a universal yearning to lose yourself in a state of trance.

Jeremy: Yes, this potentially universal aspiration towards some kind of trance state, as you put it, has been a through line in my work since very early on—from hardcore and rave and religion to the scientific attempts to map and explain it. 

Julia: One of the things that first interested me about your work is this paradox at its core: They are highly thoughtful and controlled works about the loss of control. The thought of losing control is something I am both afraid of and fascinated by. Unlike some of the scenarios they depict, many of your works allow for different levels of engagement. We can go into them at our own pace. And this chance to get a glimpse of these types of moments through works of art is something I am grateful for. And what’s fascinating is that even minor interventions in the documentary footage can have such huge effects. 

Jeremy: In a lot of the early works, like Best Minds, I was documenting activities and then reworking the footage using devices and tropes of music video, or effects you’d find being used to represent altered states in media. This would amplify the material and draw attention to the elements I was most interested in—people experiencing some kind of catharsis. These days, I’m still totally interested in these points of immersion, and even more so in attempting to elicit an actual phenomenological response from the viewer. But now I’m also keen on coaxing these moments out of a fabricated narrative. With a film like Liminals (2017), there’s a twenty minute pseudo-documentary that unfolds before reaching a climactic slow-motion dance montage. All the newer works go beyond these immersive moments too, to actually rupture in both narrative and media. 

Julia: I love how some of your films seem to drift between fiction and reality. Even if we know that your films are works of art, they seduce you into suspending your disbelief. I’ve been intrigued by how you’ve used filmmaking tools to achieve this effect. 

Jeremy: A large part of this strategy comes from my use of outmoded media. When you see something on 16 millimeter or VHS, you don’t expect to be surprised by it, because it’s already happened. It’s history. Especially when appearing in a seemingly documentary format. I capitalize on our familiarity and assumed understanding of these outmoded mediums as a tool to subvert narrative expectations. I find a lot of potential in this kind of reverse-engineering and don’t think they would have nearly the same effect if I was to go and shoot period pieces in 4K. 

Julia: I’ve seen the full Trilogy a few times now. I know what’s coming. I know that there will be a moment when the film’s narrative structure will collapse into this ecstatic climax. And yet, it doesn’t take away from my experience. I wait for the film’s surprising twist, even if it’s not a surprise to me anymore. In fact, I’ve been imagining how you will install these pieces at the collection in Berlin, which is something we’ve been planning for a while. The installation will certainly influence what people will expect to see.

Jeremy: The installation of the trilogy is always very restrained and simple, bordering on boring. I use black office-style chairs and light gray carpeting that, at first glance, might make viewers expect more of a presentation than an artwork. With these mundane installs, similar to the decoy of the outmoded media of the films, it doesn’t set the stage for the fact that you’ll soon be immersed in slow-motion strobe-light footage of people thrashing around to a pounding surround-sound score. I’ve always loved being tricked by cinema and by art and that’s something I carry into my own practice. I’m always into manipulating expectations.

Julia: I’m always drawn to art that can defy or manipulate our expectations. Art can really lift our spirits and make us feel great. But it can also be an amazing corrective for when we feel overly in control. Maybe that’s a good moment to talk about another set of themes that I think is very prominent in your work—religion, spirituality, and transcendence.

Exhibition view: I Can See Forever at KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, 2018
© Image Timo Ohler

Jeremy: Yes, the seemingly timeless human notion of transcendence has definitely been at the core of my practice for the past fifteen years or so. And a recognition of the multitude of avenues and subjective definitions of the word itself, spiritual, hedonistic, scientific. Some people go to church, some go dancing, some try to map what’s happening in the brain while they do this. I think it becomes even more heightened in times of crisis. A lot of people are fixated on science at the moment, but I am almost certain that there’s a massive amount of people discovering or rediscovering spirituality in some sense as well. 

Julia: So you think these two tendencies can co-exist? Working with science but also holding on to spiritual practice?

Jeremy: Absolutely. I think it’s a real shame to see them as mutually exclusive. One of the key ideas of the Quantification Trilogy was my desire to flatten the common hierarchy of religion versus science. Much of the narrative circles around an event named “The Quantification,” which is a scientific discovery that has isolated spiritual experience to an identical set of synapses firing in all human brains. As a result, spirituality has been demystified and largely abandoned. The films show various groups who resist this discovery, and are looking for new ways to evolve beyond and create new avenues for spiritual experience. So there is a constant dialogue about navigating spirituality in a time when there is a scientific understanding of its neurological mechanisms.

Julia: Since we’ll be working on a show together, I’ve also been wondering if you envision your work as something that we watch alone? Or are your films made to be watched in groups?

Jeremy: This really depends on the individual work and the circumstances surrounding the installation. A big turning point in my practice came from an exhibition in 2012 that Susanne Pfeffer curated at KW in Berlin. It was called One on One. The premise was that each piece could only be viewed by one person at a time. I made a video that was installed in a long, container-like space that would start when the viewer sat down on a chair in front of it and would turn off if they stood up for more than three seconds. You were forced to watch it alone and from that exact position. With the show in Galerie 3 at the Pompidou, which is a massive space, the set up is very different. Here, I wanted to be able to engage a large number of people in varying configurations. You enter the piece from a ramp that puts you up on a viewing platform overlooking the seven screens. This has exaggerated, block-like stairs that you can sit on and view the entire work from. This is also where people tend to congregate when the synchronized climax happens. But when you descend down into the installation, you can choose a different setup for yourself. You can wander around experiencing the work immersively, or isolate yourself on one of the benches in front of each screen to focus on a specific film. 

Julia: Amazing. The subtle differences between individual and collective viewing experiences are at the heart of what we do at the collection. As a collector, I always work to install a piece exactly as the artist wants it, so this question has become very urgent as some artists are getting interested in Virtual Reality. When you’re wearing VR goggles, you feel completely alone, even though other people in the gallery might be watching you, and this is something that people tend to have very extreme reactions to.

Exhibition view: Introduction to The Memory Personality at KW, Berlin, 2012
© Image David von Becker

Jeremy: I completely understand that some people find VR headsets claustrophobic, though they are intended to produce the opposite effect. In terms of my work, at this point at least, the problem is that they actually grant the viewer too much autonomy. The instant you put on a VR headset, or even 3D glasses for that matter, you are ready to go on a ride—you’re in on the fact that this technology is going to try and wow you in some sense. It may be uncomfortable and disorienting, but nonetheless you’re somehow prepared. It’s a first-person perspective and you do still control it. This type of anticipation is the exact opposite of the familiarity that my work has attempted to gain from an audience in the past years. I prefer to lure people in with things that they assume they understand and feel comfortable with, in order to then subvert them. 

Julia: At times, it feels like technology stops working once I get really comfortable with it. Perhaps this is just a hazard of collecting moving-image art. Many of the works in the collection were made with and for technologies that are now completely obsolete. The curator Daniel Birnbaum once told me that to buy media art was like collecting snowballs. Only, of course, my storage is still packed—not with art, but with tons of film equipment from all eras. It’s so important to collect this technology. Without these devices it would be impossible to fully experience many of the most important works in media art history. My whole collection is obviously digitized, but every copy, every transfer means that you lose some data, some of the original piece. 



Jeremy Shaw (b. 1977 in North Vancouver, Canada) works in a variety of media to explore altered states and the cultural and scientific practices that aspire to map transcendental experience. Often combining and amplifying strategies of verité filmmaking, conceptual art, music video, and scientific research, he creates a post-documentary space that complicates expectations of the moving image as a form of testimony.

Shaw has had solo exhibitions at Julia Stoschek Collection, Düsseldorf, Germany (2020); Centre Pompidou, Paris, France (2020); Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Montréal, Canada (2020); Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin, Germa...
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