Selection from Assisted Vérité: A Conversation with Jeremy Shaw

Jeremy Shaw Phase Shifting Index Swiss Institute

In anticipation of Jeremy Shaw’s exhibition Phase Shifting Index, opening at SI in September 2020, here is an excerpt from an interview with Shaw conducted by SI Director Simon Castets and SI Chief Curator Laura McLean-Ferris, featured in Jeremy Shaw, newly published by SI and Centre Pompidou on the occasion of Shaw’s exhibitions at both institutions. Phase Shifting Index is a newly commissioned seven-screen audiovisual installation by Jeremy Shaw, depicting groups from different points in an imagined future. Each explores ritual and cathartic movements until they reach a moment of transcendence and unison. 

Simon Castets and Laura McLean-Ferris: There are notes you scribbled on disparate sheets of paper while shooting, indications such as “isolate ecstatic quantum bend time” or “robot cypher go rapture,” and narratives read in voice-over are written after the fact. Much is left to chance, yet you create a very precise framework for the performances of your actors.

Jeremy Shaw: When I made Quickeners in 2014, I came to it with a 60-minute cinema vérité film from 1967 about Pentecostal snake handlers in West Virginia.The entire narrative of the future world of the Quantum Humans was drawn out of this pre-existing material. I found having these restricted parameters surprisingly effective and since then have gone about making the films in a similar, but fabricated manner. I produce primary material in a pseudo-documentary style, and then sculpt a secondary narrative from it.

SC and LMF: Which elements are left to chance?

JS: I set up the initial parameters, probably about 40% of what I want the story to involve, then workshop the movement styles and forms with the actors/dancers, and then we shoot. The visual framework is controlled by location, wardrobe, casting and camera-work, but within that, the delivery of the narrative is left largely at the mercy of what evolves during shooting. From there, the writing and editing process connects the original concept with what transpired in that raw material. This ends up producing a lot of reverse-engineering. But what the viewer witnesses in the ‘documentary’ footage has a large element of realism to it—the per- formers really do go to these depths, they’re just doing so while aware of a certain fictional set-up. It’s not necessarily ‘chance’, more a kind of assisted vérité. 

SC and LMF: Can you describe the different steps that led to the completion of your most recent work, Phase Shifting Index (2020)?

JS: Phase Shifting Index hinges on a pre-determined moment of sync between seven films —a climax that each evolve to. The time parameters are very strict as they all have to unfold at that specific moment. I am also finding this restriction liberating in a way—the necessity to reel in this abundance of material to make sure you consistently hit a certain mark, otherwise things could go on forever. It’s almost like having to work with a linear editing system again. The narrative element is also freed up somewhat by the fact that it’s an installation that won’t be shown in a single channel environment—each film doesn’t need to explain the entire thesis of the piece, only fragments of a larger whole.

SC and LMF: Your most recent series of moving image works (Quantification Trilogy) are based around a future event known as ‘The Quantification’. Can you elaborate on this concept and the title that you chose for it?

JS: The idea of The Quantification permeates all my films since 2014. Each group or culture depicted in these works, as well as the narrator, is situated in relation to this fictional scientific breakthrough of the near future. The Quantification functions as a narrative construct that considers transcendental experience as a scientific measurement: the ability to quantify and explain scientifically what is happening during a spiritual experience. If science came to a point where it could explain the experience of transcendence in an empirically sound way, would that discount the experience? If you prove to me how and why I see God, does that mean that I actually don’t—or does it confirm it that I do? I feel like I’ve been thinking about this for the past 29 years—ever since the first time I took acid.

SC and LMF: How has the construction of this fictional break- through in the future allowed you to explore other mystical, spiritual, and psychotropic movements from other periods? 

JS: It’s given me a point of departure from which I can include many disparate elements of my interests into single works. I wanted to speak about belief and VR and evolution, factually and speculatively, but I also wanted to see people dancing to synth-pop, speaking-in-tongues and having psychedelic meltdowns. I wanted to be able to discuss neurotheology and choreometrics, but make works that felt like Faces of Death, evangelical television and La Jetée all at once. So I have capitalized on the potential, or freedom, of science fiction as a platform to combine these interests—and the aesthetics of documentary as way to make them succinct and autonomous. SC and LMF: In the worlds that you fabricate, there is a lingering sense of doom, alongside with notes of reassuring nostalgia that accompanies outmoded media. How do you deploy this sense of comfort that accompanies antiquated technology?

JS: Familiarity with outmoded media evokes a certain pretense of safety. You know what to expect when something is recorded on 16mm or VHS. It’s permanent, it happened. You don’t expect to be surprised as you’ve already lived through that time in history, or it predates you. To me, found footage tends to seem naïve when on these old forms, even though that’s obviously not the case as the world didn’t suddenly become dubious with the dawn of digital video. I’ve always had an aversion to DV though. Even with some of my older, more documentary works, like the Arena (1999-2004) series and Best Minds (2007), I chose to continue using Hi-8 cameras after digital video was widely available. Something about DV felt overly real and present to me, and with that, kept me at a strange distance from it. It was like it was so real that it felt staged. I like to think that this is simply about resolution. The amount of data around an event or phenomenon is culturally tied to witnessing things. The higher the resolution, the greater the sense of reality. As we got higher, it seemed to go beyond the reality I knew or was looking to capture—so I’ve often worked backwards. That said, I’m not using the nostalgia of the media to make films feel warm and fuzzy. It’s used to disarm—to create a somewhat vulnerable space from which to propose. The works comment largely on the present, told through images seemingly from the past, presented as the future. There is a perpetual cognitive dissonance attached to the use of media and its position in time. But there is always a shift from the outmoded to a contemporary format or embellishment. When this occurs, I’m pushing into visual effects territory, trying to represent something on the edge of trauma—something even more heightened and extreme. Visual effects have always seemed like a fitting way for me to exploit this abundance of resolution—maybe as a way to examine or exorcise my own aversion to it. 

Originally published in JEREMY SHAW (Éditions Centre Pompidou, Paris, Swiss Institute, New York, 2020)
Jeremy Shaw: Phase Shifting Index will open at SI in September 2020. The exhibition will also be presented at Centre Pompidou, Paris; Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart; and Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt.