Dance Dance Revelation
November 11, 2020
I TRAVELED TO SEE Jeremy Shaw’s Phase Shifting Index, 2020, at the Frankfurter Kunstverein after I’d had my “mind blown”—I keep describing it that way—by his Quantification Trilogy, 2014–18, currently on view at the Julia Stoschek Collection in Berlin, where Shaw is based. For nearly two decades, the Vancouver-born artist has made work that very much sets out to blow your mind while also thematizing mind-blowing as such. His 2004 video DMT shows close-ups of people’s faces as they come up on the psychedelic drug and try to describe what it feels like. This Transition Will Never End, 2008–, also included in the Frankfurt exhibition, loops through various CGI portals sourced from various movies, such as Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the psychological horror film The Cell (2000). The screen is as tall as a human. You feel like you could walk right into it.
The Frankfurter Kunstverein is the second outing of Phase Shifting Index, after a run at Centre Pompidou was suspended due to the pandemic. The seven-channel video installation presents documentary-style vignettes set in a future that couldn’t quite be ours, less for what that future holds than for Shaw’s mannered anachronisms. Each scene is first lensed in vanguard HD and then reshot with outmoded technology, say, 16-mm film or Hi-8 video, to match its equally retro styling. One vignette looks like documentation from an early Yvonne Rainer workshop, another like an ’80s Italo disco music video, yet another like a Teen Spirit grunge meltdown. If Phase Shifting Index belongs to a neo-avant-garde superhighway that stretches from Gretchen Bender and Mark Leckey to artists as varied as Cao Fei and Jacolby Satterwhite, it also feels entirely original, a wormhole occasioned by the detachment of technologies from their associated space-time.
Arrayed across two floors, the installation requires viewers to dip in and out of its interconnected stories, slowly piecing together the logic of Shaw’s universe. You have to relax into the fact that you’re never going to fully understand it, but even getting to that point is a somewhat demanding exercise. Interviewees communicate in a distorted almost-English, while a voice-over speaks in a techy jargon that takes words such as “singularity” and “integration” to mean something very specific. By the twenty-second century, says a BBC-accented narrator, “spirituality has been explained”—what this means exactly remains opaque—and through the risky integration of “machine DNA” into our biology, humans are turning into cyborgs. Whether this augurs our extinction or an efflorescence of human consciousness remains unclear, as each docufiction portrays a subculture that performs dancelike rituals, in some cases to reconnect with their bodies and with so-called ordinary reality, and in others to maximize their potential for machinic excellence, to break through to some higher metaphysical plane. The seven channels all end in a synchronized climax in which special effects gradually agglomerate as the soundtracks coalesce and intensify. The actors pixilate and burst from below the grainy sheen of the film reel before disintegrating altogether into a flow of light and color that leaks into the gallery through lights in the ceiling.
Quantification Trilogy likewise involves pseudo-documentaries set in an alienated sci-fi future, with a high-tech glitch-out at the end. But its episodes are longer, their worlds more elaborate, and you watch them one by one, focused rather than immersed. Quickeners, 2014, with its reworking of midcentury archival footage of Pentecostal snake handlers, addresses the unsettling and murky zone between the political margin and the social fringe. Similarly ambivalent, the Summer of Love–style perceptual experiments of Liminals, 2017, call to mind Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album” and its depiction of a counterculture dangerously verging on sectarian herd mentality. I Can See Forever, 2018, follows a young man who, due to a catastrophic machine DNA experiment of which he is the sole survivor, has become a dancer of superhuman virtuosity. Given the 1990s PBS-aesthetics of the film and its backdrop of Berlin’s modernist social housing estates, I couldn’t help but connect the story’s themes to real utopian ideas, mainly socialism—in a post-’89 reunified Germany so newly collapsed, its “survivors” strangely misplaced within a changed ideological paradigm. In I Can See Forever, the young man’s brilliance is poetic and lonely, and the extended dance routine at the end is at once the swan song and the essence of art itself. These reflections are but the tip of the iceberg of what could be extrapolated from the Quantification Trilogy, which, with its eerily successful theater of illusion, both evokes and disrupts what Adorno has called “the worn grooves of the familiar.”
By comparison, in Phase Shifting Index, Shaw’s mediation-as-style schematic becomes its own “worn groove,” too heavily relied upon for both substance and aesthetic impact. Here, the groups rebelling against, coping with, or cultivating the mechanization of humankind appear without architectural hooks or ideological attachments, dancing within the confines of empty rooms. When the documentary sequence breaks, it turns out the individual chapters are not well-founded enough to justify the flood of special effects and, as a result, become interchangeable: enrolled in the service of a single and much simpler point about the eternal allure and (to my mind, tenuous) liberatory possibilities of dance and, considering Shaw’s former occupation as a DJ, club culture and music by extension.
What does a work like Phase Shifting Index, so bent on technological dexterity and formal virtuosity, say about our present? That, at this point, even a fictional portrayal of letting go can’t afford to lose control? The Quantification Trilogy is mind-blowing because it is flypaper for so much more than Shaw could possibly have known to put there, giving rise to a messy state of sapio-transcendence where each idea bleeds beyond its own boundaries. But Phase Shifting Index, designed to make us come nearer to the high we witness on-screen by bludgeoning us with media, ultimately produces not ecstasy but the same machinelike predictability it thematizes. When the trick is performed on us again and again, rather than joining the performers in rapture, we find the mystery, like spirituality in the twenty-second century, explained away.
— Kristian Vistrup Madsen
Phase Shifting Index is on view at Frankfurter Kunstverein until January 24, 2021; Quantification Trilogy is on view at Julia Stoschek Collection until November 29, 2020.