Jeremy Shaw's Audiovisual Dance Symphony Mesmerises in Talinn
Phase Shifting Index, Jeremy Shaw's monumental seven-screen video installation first presented at Centre Pompidou in 2020, has to be experienced in person.
Exhibition view: Jeremy Shaw, Phase Shifting Index, Kumu Art Museum, Tallinn (8 October 2021–20 February 2022). Courtesy Kumu Art Museum.
The work's latest instalment at Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn (8 October 2021–20 February 2022) returns to its original single-room staging after a two-floor format at Frankfurter Kunstverein, where it showed after Paris, creating the conditions to fully submerge in a rich totality expressed in fragments.
And submerge you do. Seven massive screens, whose images can be viewed from either side, are positioned in a ground-level gallery whose sunken floor is reached from a viewing platform that gives way to large steps that double as seats, like an ancient Greek theatre.
Everything bar the walls and columns is covered in a soft grey carpet, which at times radiates under millennial pink spotlights, including benches placed in front of every screen, themselves arranged in a curved row of four up front and three in the back.
At first, it's hard to take it all in. Each film features a different group of people engaging in various modes of dance. In one, shot in classic mid-century black and white, modern dancers—think Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris—are rehearsing in a studio with brick walls painted white.
Every vignette is staged as a documentary; in this case, the dancers speak about 'Modern Entangled motion'. A loudspeaker dangling over the area—there's one for every screen—emits the voice of a male with a cutglass British accent who delivers an authoritative narration.
These are Quantum Moderns, we are told, or Q-Mods for short; an early 22nd-century movement guided by 'intuitive geometries' whose adherents 'learned to manipulate time and reality for their own survival'.
As Shaw has explained, 'the films are positioned as the first recorded evidence of the capacity to physically manifest a new reality through belief and movement.'1 But while each group is framed as a 22nd-century dance phenomenon, there is a distinctly retro vibe across the board.
Take the 'The Violet Lux', who 'achieved a physical state of parallel reality' through a 'rehearsal of alchemical rituals'. In what is described as 'a late 21st-century recording', a tight-knit group wearing bright monochrome Lycra leggings and white shirts perform in sync on a gold stage with a shiny, purple curtain hanging behind them.
Apparently, Shaw filmed in digital high-definition before re-shooting his videos with analogue tech, having used 16mm, VHS, and Hi-8 for past works; an effect that feels most palpable in this very visible homage to the 1980s.
Just behind the 'The Violet Lux' is an altogether different group that seems to honour the decade after that. In 'Countdown', young nihilists mosh to heavy metal in a black room. 'We're going to decimate this reality,' says one, their warped voice subtitled for comprehension; 'to make the final void of all history'.
As a spatial experience, the videos work together to create a dissonant, multi-part symphony...
A vocal twisting occurs with every testimony, including from the 'Reclaimers', who sought recovery from 'Unit addiction'—that is, 'virtual trauma'—by using dance as a therapeutic return to the body.
'I want to live in a world based in reality', says one member of the group, whose movements at points invoke the BodyTalk system, in which finger tapping the body engenders healing. Their voice is digitised into a sometimes incomprehensible warp and weft.
A focal point of Phase Shifting Index seems to be the black-and-white central screen located in the back row, in which a line of five dancers dressed in a uniform of black gym shorts and white vest exude a distinctly Soviet utilitarianism.
This is 'The Alignment Movement', a 'global phenomena' that 'would engage in a meditative mathematical practice in a monk-like state of reductiveness'. Repeating sharp, mechanical movements, the group moves in line and in unison, their very audible marching steps constituting an ever-present beat.
The 'Zero Ones', decked out in candy coloured eighties athleisure, present an alternative, technicolour mode of unitary collectivism—'a direct through-line with the government-controlled Singularity Project of the previous century'—in which members synchronise to create shapes together; think an elevated arm wave.
As a spatial experience, the videos work together to create a dissonant, multi-part symphony composed not only of speech, music, movement, and light, but of temporalities, which eventually begin to sync.
Movements intensify, as does the sound in the room, which starts to blend into a single melody. At the climax of this crescendo, every group begins to dance the same steps to the same song played from every speaker, the lights in each screen flashing on and off like everyone's in the same club.
Laser beams cut through these united scenes. At once a disco and rave homage, but also a mirroring of an exercise conducted by 'The Cyclical Culture', in which dancers hold long, slim bamboo sticks to connect one another like an organic circuit board.
It is an incredibly affecting moment; so much so, a visitor began to copy the movements in the middle of the room during my visit. This is, after all, a work designed to be moved through and with.
Suddenly, a break occurs as each screen becomes the site of the same glitch. Dancers freeze before their images melt into pixels that swirl like waves, their faces at once registering ecstasy and cataclysm. Then, a fuchsia nebula fills each screen and a tinkering whistle fills the room; the sound of space.
At 36 minutes, this is a succinct treatise. About dance's potential as a grounded yet transcendental collective movement, through which bodies seeking release from the confines of prescribed material realities effectively reach for the same thing. Perhaps something so ineffable, that it is distilled into this galaxy brain moment at the end. —[O]
1 William Alderwick, 'What's the value of time that don't end?: Jeremy Shaw's PHASE SHIFTING INDEX', 032c, 23 March 2020, https://032c.com/phase-shifting-index