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  • Christian Hain

J.S. presents... J.S. - Jeremy Shaw Takes Julia Stoschek Collection on a Trip Back to the Future

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(Berlin.) It’s all very confusing indeed, and I don’t mean that virus thing, no: even before that started, Julia Stoschek shocked us and all arty Berlin with her decision to leave, and take her collection to Düsseldorf, where she’s been operating another space for years. The ensuing media outcry remained not limited to the German capital, as every other paper lamented the municipal authorities’ outrageous culture politics – not without legitimation of course, although this particular example could ultimately turn out as “fake news”. Or not, for all we know is, that several weeks later, another communiqué arrived in our inbox, announcing the appointment of a new director for the very same, supposedly closing, Berlin space. Might have been “just one of those cry-for-help things“ (prepare for more quotes today, movie or else, and mostly from the dystopian canon) - would it be too farfetched mentioning the media expertise in Ms Stoschek’s household here, her partner being the CEO of Springer AG (that’s the German News Corp)?

The former director is leaving her for another, even a little bigger - and even a little bit richer than the heiress presumptive of an automotive parts empire – collector, Mr Hasso Plattner, who’s bound to open a second museum for his abundant collections next year, this one being reserved for “GDR and Contemporary Art” (a forward thinking combination indeed, considering the current state of mind in Berlin and the world). Add Mr Olbricht and his me Collection leaving, too – for real! - and bequeathing the rooms next door to KW Institute to an obscure collection of Japanese folklore (potentially not for real, as this should have moved in weeks ago), and you realize, it was an exciting spring for everybody interested in Berlin art gossip – before Chinese migration went viral (ugh, awful, and politically most incorrect, wordplay, I know!), taking our attention somewhere else entirely.

Today, JSC is still where it has been for years, and still appears not overly appreciated by the municipal authorities (private wealth is not what you’re supposed to connote with the new Berlin, after all), nor by the media who despite that collective outcry in spring once again largely ignored a new show’s preview. Regardless of the newly normal limits in attendance to every gathering, JSC was compelled to send out a “friendly reminder” two days prior to the event, thereby in the very least motivating an irrelevant Berlin blogger, who had forgotten all about the initial invite, to a visit, and let me state this straight away: It was worth it; those who stayed away were wrong.

Canadian artist Jeremy Shaw is sharing a common passion with Ms Stoschek for one of the last branches of the entertainment industry that are still lockdowned (yeah, I know, it’s “locked down”, but seriously: wouldn’t it be time for a dedicated neologism?), even now and even in Berlin, where life has otherwise returned to normal, those rules limiting the attendance to exhibition visits notwithstanding: Clubbing that is. (The other exception being prostitution, and if you take your usual shortcuts visiting some galleries on Potsdamer Straße, you will sense the desperation in their increasingly aggressive customer acquisition, once again working in illegality). It shows, or rather: sounds, in the soundtrack to Shaw’s films that we are served today.

With a combined runtime of well above ninety minutes – the artist might have as well considered a submittal to Berlinale festival: they do have a programme slot for everything -, the Quantification Trilogy is shown for the first time in Berlin, where he's spent the past decade. At this point, we cannot help but mentioning, that living in a foreign country for ten years, and still not daring to pronounce a single word in the native tongue, makes it seem a little bit odd when curators talk – and talk critically - about “globalisation” and “power structures” in the introduction to a show... But nevertheless, Jeremy Shaw’s not your stereotypical “‘murican abroad” (and not merely because he's Canadian)!

His main interests appear old-fashioned, have been en vogue for the last time (ever?) during the 1960s and ‘70s, and are all but forgotten today, namely the strife for spirituality in a technocratic world. Shaw probably wouldn’t take offense, and even feel obliged, by being labelled “Contemporary Art’s Aldous Huxley”. Learning about his work, we note catchwords like “transcendence”, and “altered conscience” - not “Soma-tic”, but by the means of dance and enthusiastic religious rites alone. These films referencing 1960s/70s found footage home videos and B-movies, painting a possible future in a distorting mirror from the past, Stoschek Collection describes their style as “para-fictional”, meaning a mix of SciFi and docu-fiction (SciDoFi?!). The trilogy’s individual parts, all shot between 2014 and 2018, run in an endless (at least until the collection closes for the day, and some intern makes her round...) loop, and may - as gets explicitly stated - be watched in no particular order. This said, they tell of mankind’s linear progress towards a “state of perfect rationality” called “quantification”, when a movement among our immortal cyborg successors eventually promotes a conservative longing for spirituality, trying to revive what is/will have been lost in transformation, and aiming at a new, spiritual, Renaissance, but I’m anticipating here. In chronological order, but filmed in the exact reverse:

1. I Can See Forever (2018), set at the brave beginnings of Shaw’s new world, forty years in the future – undoubtably, he is aware of the biblical obsession with that number in a temporary context -, portrays the sole survivor of a failed experiment injecting people with “machine DNA”. ...No, you’re right, that doesn’t make any sense, at all, and is actually a contradictio in adiecto: only biological thingies have DNA, it’s a common definition of “organic” (only when descending further into the microcosmos, everything’s atoms, light, energy and stuff), but anyway: Far from idolizing Robot Maria or dancing Kraftworkers, the survivor chooses the dervishes of old for his role model.

The plot is told in very “artistic” takes and interviews, with much meticulously choreographed and thus still on the robotic side (break-)dancing to not only electronic music but also Gospel – an interesting turn: it’s living culture, that “matters”, and the protagonist might be longing for some lost identity, too. I Can See Forever culminates in a passage through a nineteen eighties video game vector tunnel (have you ever seen footage of the very first Star Wars game?), before focusing a couple watching images of the sea on TV, and, ultimately, a crack in the Matrix: pixelated stop motion images as the system can no longer compute.

2. “Liminals” (2017): In “three generations from now“ - however that might convert to more familiar units -, the ominous “machine DNA” makes a return in a new, updated, and (hopefully!) less buggy version with fewer casualties than the beta, as a group seeks to take evolution in their proper hands, and attain “paraspace” while reviving forgotten rituals and psychedelic dance-to-trance (weren’t there injections and Rastafarians in Neuromancer, too?). Concretely, this looks like recordings of a hippie community discovering EDM, but contrary to what the grainy images suggest - a screenshot of their v e r y ecstatic faces has been used for the expo ads and could steer your expectations towards a drug fuelled love-in/Golden Era adult flic -, these people have not ingested some special Kool Aid, while the soundtrack varies from Ambient to Deep T-... rance.

The monochrome images climax in a stroboscopic assault on the audience, should you be susceptible to the odd epileptic attack, you’ll discover whole new uses for that facemask (obligatory, of course), doubling for a blindfold.

3. Finally, 500 years fast forward, and installed behind an antechamber with digitally altered photos of praying faces (screaming “I want to believe“?), a pseudo–documentary takes us to Area 51 - no: “23”(!), “Area 23” it is - where a community of post-humans stricken with “Human Atavism Syndrome - HAS”, otherwise called Quickeners (the film’s title, 2014) lives, and we are certainly supposed to think of Quakers, Shakers, and other dissenters of times long past. Mind that acronym, and regardless of what we’ve said before, Jeremy Shaw understands at least some words in German, among them potentially being “Hass” (well, in fact, it’s “Haß”, but that cute “ß” has already been streamlined away in the service of globalisation and optimized computer efficiency) which translates to “hate”. One endemically humane phenomenon that artificial “intelligence” lacks, and without hate, there can be no love, either. But is it worth it? Maybe in the end, everything boils down to that question...

Literally hearing the word “logic”, we see 1960s era cars and sheds that despite rotting away, have mysteriously survived into the year 2525 (but fine, dystopian filmmakers seldom agreed with such petty trifles, looking at you, Monsieur Godard) – Did you ever listen to that 1960s classic “In the Year 2525” by some band called Zager&Evans, a song with a Nietzschean twist in the end, viz. “the eternal recurrence of ever the same”? Jeremy Shaw certainly did (and nope, that’s not my generation either, but some historical interest can never be wrong).

Interesting detail: In all three films, the omnipresent subtitles don’t match the spoken words, and yes: I am sure, this wasn’t just due to some clubbing-related issue with my hearing. All supposedly English dialogue appears more than merely mumble-rapped, but altogether inarticulate. As we’ve learned elsewhere, in one of the best films ever made: “The English language had deteriorated into a hybrid of hillbilly, valley girl, inner city slang, and various grunts” (from Mike Judd’s comedic masterpiece Idiocracy)?! The only exception in the whole Quantification Trilogy we meet "right here, right now" (as cries the Myna bird on Huxley's Island, a sample later used in a successful electropop track of the late 1990s): The voice from the off reporting on the Quickeners phenomenon is perfectly understandable, and lacks all subtitles.

The reigning power to be, we further learn, calls itself “The Hive”, and might be something like Star Trek’s embodiment of the Socialist utopia in form of the Borg collective; it preserves a neutral pov, not openly condemning or persecuting the Quickeners, but of course, every feeling of menace or concern would be unscientific...

Let’s close with a quote from Shaw’s namesake George Bernard, who, by the way, is rumoured to have been fascinated by another dystopia, Edward Bulger’s controversial, i.e. interesting, The Coming Race, and the foreword to his play The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles: "...Religion is the mother of skepticism: Science is the mother of credulity. There is nothing that people will not believe nowadays if only it be presented to them as Science, and nothing they will not disbelieve if it be presented to them as religion. I myself began like that; and I am ending by receiving every scientific statement with dour suspicion whilst giving very respectful consideration to the inspirations and revelations of the prophets and poets. For the shift of credulity from religious divination to scientific invention is very often a relapse from comparatively harmless romance to mischievous and even murderous quackery..."

We don’t know, whether Jeremy Shaw believes in a possible reconciliation, and advocates a dialectic synthesis in form of some “rationalist spiritualism”, but you should never stop believing in art. And you can also trust me with this: Shaw’s works and reasoning are fascinating beyond a doubt!

Jeremy Shaw, The Quantification Trilogy, 5 September-29 November 2020, Julia Stoschek Collection



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