It’s all very confusing indeed, and I don’t talk about that virus thing, no: even before that started, we were (mildly) shocked by Julia Stoschek’s decision to leave Berlin and take her collection to Düsseldorf, where she’s been operating another space for years. The ensuing media outcry was not limited to the German capital, as every other paper lamented the municipal authorities’ outrageous culture politics – certainly not without good cause, although this particular example has ultimately turned out to be fake news.
Or maybe not, for all we know is that several weeks later another communiqué arrived in our inbox to announce the appointment of a new director for the very same, supposedly closing, Berlin space. It might have been just one of those cry-for-help things – would it be too far fetched to mention the media expertise in Ms Stoschek’s household? Her partner being the CEO of Springer AG – the German equivalent of NewsCorp.
The former director meanwhile is leaving her for another, 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 Berlin state of mind). Add Mr Olbricht and his me Collectors Room leaving, too – for real! – and bequeathing his 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 everyone interested in Berlin art gossip – before Chinese migration went viral (ugh, awful, and politically most incorrect, wordplay, I know!), and took our attention hostage.
Today, the Julia Stoschek Collection 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 the new show’s preview. Regardless of the newly normal limits to attendance to every gathering, JSC even had to send out a friendly reminder two days prior to the event, motivating a certain irrelevant Berlin correspondent and blogger, who had forgotten all about the initial invite, to visit, and let me say this straight away: it was worth it; those who stayed away were wrong.
Canadian artist Jeremy Shaw shares 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, in Berlin, where life otherwise has (for now) mostly returned to normal, those rules limiting attendance at exhibition visits notwithstanding: clubbing. (The other exception being prostitution, and if you take the usual shortcut visiting some gallery on Potsdamer Straße, you sense the desperation in their increasingly aggressive customer acquisition, working illegally again). The hobby shows, or rather sounds, in the soundtrack to Shaw’s films that we are served today.
With a combined runtime of well above 90 minutes, the artist might have considered a submittal to the Berlinale, too: they have a slot for everything, the Quantification Trilogy is shown for the first time in Berlin, where the artist has spent the past decade. At this point, I cannot help but mention that living in a foreign country for 10 years, and still not daring to pronounce a single word in the native tongue, makes it seem a bit weird when curators talk – and talk critically – about globalisation and power structures in the introduction to his show. Nevertheless, Jeremy Shaw’s not your stereotypical ‘murican abroad’!
His main interests appear old-fashioned, having been last in vogue during the 1960s and 1970s, and are all but forgotten nowadays, namely the struggle for spirituality in a technocratic world. Shaw probably wouldn’t take offense at being labelled contemporary art’s Aldous Huxley. Learning about his work, we note catchwords like transcendence, and altered consciousness – not somatic though, but by the means of dance and enthusiastic religious rites alone. These films referencing the 1960s/70s include found-footage home videos and B-movies, painting a possible future in a distorting mirror from the past. The Stoschek Collection describes their style as para-fictional, meaning a mix of SciFi and docu-fiction. 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 is explicitly stated – be watched in no particular order. That 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, aiming at a new, spiritual, Renaissance. But I’m anticipating. In chronological order, yet filmed in the exact reverse:
1. I Can See Forever (2018), set at the brave beginnings of Shaw’s new world, 40 years in the future – undoubtedly he is aware of the biblical obsession with that number in a temporary context – portrays the sole survivor of a failed experiment to inject 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 things have DNA, it’s a common definition of organic (only when going further, everything’s atoms, light, energy and stuff). Far from idolizing Robot Maria, 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, not only to electronic music but also Gospel – an interesting turn: it’s living culture that matters, and the protagonist might be longing for a lost identity, too. I Can See Forever culminates in a passage through a 1980s video game vector tunnel (have you ever seen footage of the very first Star Wars game?), before focusing on 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). 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, as a group seeks to take evolution in their hands, and attain paraspace while reviving forgotten rituals and psychedelic dance-to-trance (weren’t there injections and Rastafarians in Neuromancer, too?). This looks like recordings of a hippie community discovering electronic dance music, but contrary to what the grainy images suggest – a screenshot of their 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, as the soundtrack varies from ambient to deep trance.
The monochrome images climax is a stroboscopic assault on the audience; should you be susceptible to the odd epileptic attack, you’ll discover a whole new use for that facemask (obligatory, of course), or simply close your eyes.
3. Finally, fast forward 500 years, 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 Area 23 – where a community of post-humans stricken with Human Atavism Syndrome (HAS) called Quickeners (the film’s title) live, and we are certainly supposed to think of Quakers, Shakers, and other dissenters of times long past. Mind that acronym, and despite what we’ve said before, Jeremy Shaw does at least understand some words in German, among them potentially 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 human 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 watch 1960s-era cars and sheds that despite rotting away, have mysteriously survived into the year 2525 (but fine, dystopian filmmakers seldom bothered with such petty trifles, looking at you, J.L. Godard). Have you ever listened to that 1960s classic ‘In the Year 2525’ by a 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, that wasn’t just 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” (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 point of view, 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 the form of some rationalist spiritualism, but you should never stop believing in art. And 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
Volume 35 no 2 November / December 2020