Art in Berlin: Jeremy Shaw

Portrait: Trevor Good
Portrait: Trevor Good

For this week’s interview our editor Antje Stahl is sitting down with artist Jeremy Shaw to talk about the connection between arts and drugs, the playfulness of neuroaesthetics and why in the end everything is nothing and then everything again.

Antje Stahl: Jeremy. I find myself in a precarious situation. I was asked to make an interview with you but I have never seen you art.

Jeremy Shaw (laughs): Did you take a look online?

Yes. I have. But is that the same – to look at art on a web page and to experience it physically in front of your eyes?

No. No. It’s not the same. Unfortunately, it’s so rare to have art in your environment. But the website only exists because I was recently nominated for the “Young Art Price” of the Nationalgalerie at Hamburger Bahnhof. The jury was not that familiar with my work and they recommended to make a website so that they could get to know my work better. I never had one before.

Oh. So it was only on this occasion that you created a website?

Yes. Which has been actually really nice. I mean, I didn’t create it, I only did the layouts. But yes. I never had one before. It was only because of this award. Usually you send your art in a big package to them but not everybody is always in the office. In the end, the website is just like an online CV. It is not really a project or anything like that.

But isn‘t it really important for an artist or for anyone really nowadays to expose themselves somehow? How have you been doing it before? Did you send out prints?

No. Generally through studio visits, and I’m represented by a gallery. But yes, now it seems kind of silly that I didn‘t have one before. It’s so much better now that I have it than to send out pdfs. Because people barely look at a pdf – I mean, I don‘t like looking at them. So now people go there and ask for more information if they want it.

So would you say you “professionalized” your art at a later stage?

No. I don‘t think that‘s true. Because I don‘t think having a website relates to being professional. Sometimes I even think it is unprofessional. In some cases people put things out before they are really even ready to be seen. I just didn‘t feel the need to have one before that nomination. I was always very suspect of websites that aren‘t serving a certain project. Some of the artists really work online and do stuff – online projects. I always saw a web site showcasing your work as a little too self-promotional. But not anymore. I don‘t think that’s necessarily the case anymore. <

But you still prefer people to actually encounter your art than to simply checking it online?

Yes.

Ok. That is a wonderful start for an interview about your art, because I haven’t seen it yet. (Both Laugh)
So coming to your work as an artist. Trevor Good , our photographer, has told me you actually used to be a musician?

Yes.

Is there some kind of timeline? Or was the change from music to artistic production very dynamic?

No. There isn’t a fixed timeline. They always worked in unison and I was always doing the two together. But it is true, this year was the first year in which I kind of left music. At least for a while. I still dj, but last year until 2009 I was on tour almost three quarters of the year playing music, and I came to a point when I felt I was not getting much out of it anymore. It was then, that I came back to art. But the music is making it’s way into the art too – the two are not two totally separate things – I’ve been doing art performances this year. But there was definitely a point when music was more in focus than the art. It has been difficult to run two parallel careers. The worlds can be very segregated. You’re trying to work in the music world and the art world. It’s really rare that someone does that completely.

One of the works that I saw on your webpage – a very recent one from this year – is “Untitled (Home Deprivation Study)”. Could you tell me more about this work?

It is an architectural model – the structure of a sensory deprivation chamber. I ordered plans online with all the measurements and found out how to build one yourself. It is a tank filled with salt water about 30 cm high. It is completely light blocked, pitch black, silent. And you’re floating in the water. The idea is that you lose all contact with a grounding sphere. It is an imposed meditation, an altered state experience without using drugs because you’re instantly in a complete blackness. People used them in the 70s and 80s: I like this idea of not having shrines in the living room but little clandestine meditation centers in the basement. My piece was a minimal rendering of the structure – a deconstructing of the object that effects us and somehow gets people to a different mind state.

Today, I know this object as a flotation tank that you can find in alternative medicine if not in Spa’s.

Yes. That’s exactly what it is. A flotation tank. You can find it in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg for instance.

Have you tried it?

Yes. It’s great. It is an enforced meditation. Instantly, there’s nothing and you only have your own thoughts to stay with. I really enjoy these experiences. It is a nice alternative to drugs. I guess.

This very same tank – the sensory deprivation chamber – is used in the science fiction movie “Altered States” from the 1980’s.

Yes. It is the same model. The main character, Harvard professor Mr. Jessup, studies patients of schizophrenia and is convinced that any state of our consciousness – dreams, fantasies, hallucinations, religious experiences – is as real as our waking states. In order to prove that scientifically he does a series of self-experiments: He evokes hallucinations by drugs and uses the sensory deprivation tank as a medium to reach a different state of consciousness. A large part of my work is inspired by that: something like music, drugs, dance, religion or the tank functioning as a medium and the transitional moment between one state of consciousness and another.

Without disrespecting religious experiences or the practice of meditation – but how would you respond to a scientist arguing that any kind of altered state or transcendent experience is a mechanical reaction simply caused by drugs or the physical experience provided by the flotation tank? Mr. Jessup himself experiments with a drug-based magic drink from Mexico.

Well. Yes. I would probably agree. I did a piece with a drug called DMT — Dimethyltryptamine — a super-hallucinogenic drug which naturally occurs in your brain yet is only released when you’re born and when you die. Scientists attribute out-of-body experiences to this release when people are near-death; the whole being outside of the room and being able to describe what’s going on next door to you kind of thing… So yes. I definitely think it’s induced mechanically.

That’s why I’ve been doing this work with brain scan images. Scientist have scanned people’s brain in attempt to see what is actually taking place while someone is having a profound experience: studies where they have made brain scans in the religious context of people speaking in tongues, of transcending states when you’re mediating between a higher power.

Have you seen Rock my Religion? A Dan Graham movie that talks about Patty Smith doing it as well while she does her poetry. But the interesting thing to me is: the disconnect between how science is attempting to translate what is happening mechanically and how pop culture is always trying to represent the visual experience. Where the film “Altered States” is showing you crazy psychedelic images, science will show you a brain scan and tell you: this is what’s happening. But who the hell is to say who or what is correct? And what is it actually saying about the experience itself? I find that there is a very large grey area, and I’m interested in exactly this grey area – where pop culture is on equal terms as high science, and the more experimental visions of it – movies like “Altered States” or “Enter the Void” by Gaspar Noé are just as valid as “Picturing personhood” by Joseph Dumit in explaining to you what is happening in your brain.

AS So in your art you’re not trying to reproduce or activate a transitional moment or even transcending experience but to represent it?

Yes. It’s about representation. It’s about these things that are unrepresentable. There is one piece for which I’m archiving vortexes from movies where any time in a film the use of vortex represents the transition from one reality to another. This is a concept that is unrepresentable. There’s no way to visualize this transition unless you fabricate it, and we seem to have come to an agreement that this is how it looks. No matter if it is the lowest Indie movie or the highest Hollywood Oskar-winning picture – everybody uses the same kind of idea. A vortex – a spiraling tunnel. So yes. It is about the representation and the question of how you represent the altered states – how science represents the altered state to show you a scan of a brain and color certain areas in certain colors. And then how pop culture does it with some trippy poster or other. I’m equally interested in pop culture interpretations of drugs as much as in scientific ones. So yes, you’re right – I’m not the kind of person that is interested in phenomenological art work attempting to take you into the experience – I am not trying to recreate or induce “the trip”.

Do you know the field of studies called “Neuroaesthetics”? Some artists are collaborating with neurosciences and explore scientific research for their art: Olafur Eliasson’s “Weather Project” at the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern in London or Philippe Rahm’s “Diurnisme” at the Centre Pomidou in Paris are two examples. Philippe Rahm designed a light room which supported the production of Melatonin — a hormone that regulates the physical waking and sleeping rhythm within the brain.

Yes. I went to a lecture at the Guggenheim, and listened to scientist that had been doing studies on people while they watched various films in an attempt to figure out the strategy of making the perfect entertainment. Again, I’m not very interested in trying to take people into the psychedelic experience, or to try and recreate the profound, the sublime – none of that. There’s no real “Let’s strip out n the light room!” aspect to my work at the moment. No, I’m far more interested in positing conceptual ideas with the ideas of the psychedelic – where conceptual art is about reducing the idea down to its purest form – and psychedelic art is about the bombardment of senses – I am attempting to reduce the psychedelic to the conceptual – which could, technically, implement a phenomenological experience as well, I guess.

You’re trying to conceptualize a psychedelic experience in order to understand it?

This is what the DMT video work is exactly about. It is this idea that you cannot describe what has happened. Understanding that language breaks down so fast when you have a profound experience. We don’t have the capacity to explain. People would take the drug and when they would come down from it they would immediately try and explain what the experience was like – so you’re reading these very scattered recollections as subtitles while you watch them from the outside of the experience.

In the movie “Altered States” Harvard Professor Jessup is trying to convince a colleague of the importance and relevance of his experiments. But the colleague criticizes profoundly his methods, particularly the drug use and responds: “You’re not some kids freaking out over Mexican mushrooms“ – so my question is: are you a kid that is freaking out over drugs? There are a series of works named after drugs and experimenting with them like “Single Hit of White Acid”, 2006, “10 000 Hits of Black Acid”, 2005, “DMT”, 2004.

(Laughing) No. No, I don’t think I’m anymore. I mean, I was a kid playing with drugs. But I was always disappointed with them until DMT. My work before DMT was generally about youth culture, about skateboarding and raving. I think that has and will always stick with me. But what happened after DMT is that I realized that I’m interested in people aspiring to transcendence – whether you do it by drugs, religion or dancing. I like looking at people – how they are trying to leave their body. It is an age-old thing. In every epoch they tried it in some capacity. So no. I don’t think I’m a kid playing with drugs anymore because I hardly do them anymore,but something about that point in my life definitely stuck with me and continues to inspire me. I’m currently doing these experiments with Kirlian Photography.

Can you explain what it is?

It is a form of photography accidently discovered in the 30s which shows the electromagnetic field around an object. It is done like a photogram right on the film. In the 60s they were trying to introduce it into Western medicine because they felt like they could prevent illness by showing the electromagnetic field of a body. But they couldn’t control the parameters of it and dismissed it as illegitimate. In new age types it’s considered an aura camera – the aura of the object or of a person. But as a person you can only photograph your hand not the whole body because you have to use a plate for it limiting the photograph in size. Initially I wanted to test it with drugs – David Bowie experimented with it in the 70s: he put his fingertip and a crucifix on it and repeated the experiment after he took cocaine. And I thought I have to try that.
Instead I’ve been testing songs, songs that have been thought to have profound qualities like Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)” from 1983 or Donna Summer “I Feel Love” from 1982. During every new song I take a new photo and see whether it changes.

And does it?

Yes. But I mean who knows what it is right? Maybe I held my finger down longer that time or maybe… But I like the idea of testing a song through my body.

In respect to what we have said earlier – in the end, as an artist you are making fun of neuroscientist testing the influence of songs or (you mentioned) films on the brain. In a way, they are also providing images of a “song through the body”.

No. I‘m not making fun of it at all. I love it. It’s not negative but playful and curious: the artists as amateur scientist or researcher. It has a sweet notion. I have this big narrative going on in my head where there is this scientist that doesn’t believe in anything other than reality. No transcendence or altered states. And he is taking these songs that apparently have these qualities that make people loose their minds and he is dissecting them and looking at them and asking: what is it? There must be an explanation here, he’s trying to figure out the equation.

In “Altered States” the movie, Jessup reaches a mental state that is both transforming him physically and mentally to a point where he experiences the other side: he has left “reality”, or “this side of the world” and fully transcends time and space. When he described this experience later to his wife he says: „I was in that ultimate moment of terror that is the beginning of life – it is nothing. Simple nothing. A living horror. Final truth is transitory, and human life is real.”

Yes. It’s funny. Almost all psychedelic films do end up that way. At nothing. At the end of it “Enter the Void”, as well as it’s a perpetual limbo. But with “Altered States” it’s this “Love Conquers All” type thing, which is often the debate when we speak about transcendence etc…

But as opposed to the notion of nihilism, I can’t but think of one of your works called “Love Rose in Blue”. It is a small synthetic flower. A “Rose in Blue” or rather the “Blue Flower” is famously known to many Germans through the novel “Heinrich von Ofterdingen” by Novalis. It became a symbol of Romanticism – not only for love but for the romantic concept of the infinite, the ultimate reunion between man and nature, the golden age where life becomes poetry and poetry becomes life.

Yes. And where nothing becomes everything. It’s true. I don t know where I stand. My job might be to expose the both of them. It’s a form of Dualism that I’m constantly circling around without finding a position. But after taking DMT I don’t think I could ever say that there isn’t something beyond. Someone once told me the parable about God taking someone to the top of the hill and showing him the view and then bringing him back down and saying “now find it on your own”, and I think drugs like DMT are like this. You get this glimpse into this other incredible world – a world that could really be everything or nothing – and then you have to figure out a way to get there without drugs.

So you would recommend to take drugs in order to get “a glimpse into this other world”?

Oh yes. Definitely. Drugs are eye-opening. They make you re-discover things, re-evaluate the world. You’re back at being a child again, you’re lying in the grass and laughing for hours.


Jeremy Shaw is a Canadian artist and musician based in Berlin. While extensive touring with his band CIRCLESQUARE over the past years, he continued to work as a visual artist in a variety of media ranging from video installation, photography and painting. He is represented by gallery Blanket, Vancouver.

Antje Stahl is a Berlin based writer and independent curator. Her work has been published in Monopol and FAZ among others.

Photography: Trevor Good

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