Jeremy Shaw’s ‘Phase Shifting Index’ at Centre Pompidou

2 March 2021

By Helen Lee

There is no fresher horror to the modern-day luddite than the social media Live Video function. In the Live Video, the subject is tripled: there is the subject filming, the subject being viewed, and the subject auto-saved for posterity by the filming interface. Live Video has a forebearer in performance art, such as Joan Jonas’ incorporation of live video into her “actions” during the 1970’s. In describing Jonas’ performance Vertical Role (1972), curator Barbara London writes that by using live video, Jonas invokes the “unedited present” as a means of dislocating space and elongating time. (1) In contrast, the practice of “going live” on social media renders the unedited present as digital content to be viewed and shared on a for-profit platform. The medium of video art in the contemporary context is uniquely positioned to ask: Where is a better vantage point from which to view the present than Live?

On April 4th, 2020, Jeremy Shaw made his first professional appearance in an Instagram Live Video with his Berlin gallery König Galerie. In the Live Video, he discusses his exhibition Phase Shifting Index at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, which opened on February 26. Phase Shifting Index features an eponymously-named seven-channel video installation, which Shaw describes in the Live Video discussion as a meditation on belief, altered reality, and the temporality of media. The size of Phase Shifting Index (2020)  is “ambitious, compared to what I’m used to,” says Shaw, whose oeuvre involves a range of multi-media work. (2) One of the pieces he is best known for is DMT (2004), a video that depicts people experiencing and then attempting to describe a drug-induced ecstasy. Phase Shifting Index was put on hold when the Centre Pompidou closed due to the COVID pandemic in March of 2020. 

Image: Screencap of the Instagram Live video by Jeremy Shaw, organized by König Galerie. Photo courtesy of the author.

The layout of the room in which Phase Shifting Index is exhibited suggests a theatre-style seating arrangement on large steps, such that viewers can scan across all seven screens upright on the concrete floor with a half rotation of the neck. Each video, produced in documentary-style, features groups of people engaging in various movement-based practices. One video appears upon first inspection to portray the quintessential 70’s exercise tape, another a drama class practicing trust falls. All are filmed in a style that reads to the contemporary viewer as nostalgic and recognizable pre-digital VHS and Super8 formatting. Thus, the narrator is likely to confuse the era-attentive viewer when he refers to the 21st century in past tense.

The long didactic at the entrance of the exhibition explains the seven imagined futuristic subcultures of each video, ranging from just ahead of our current time to the early 22nd century. Shaw describes each subculture as the result of successive schools of thought. If one reads each video’s didactic cumulatively, they tell the story of a power called The Quantification, which decrees in the late 21st century that the corporeal mind and the machine-uploaded mind are equally capable of psychic release. In the group, Shaw names The Cyclical Culture of the early 22nd century, portrayed in the first video on the left, subjects move around with yogic precision and pacing in a homely environment. Their movement is meant to hone a “perpetual state of transformation… [in order to experience] replication as a Machine.” (3) The disembodied voice of the narrator, relating this history from 200 years ahead, suggests that human replication as machine has been accomplished. 

Image: Installation view of Phase Shifting Index, 2020 by Jeremy Shaw. Photo by Timo Ohler courtesy of Centre Pompidou.

The content of the work is twofold: there are the immersive videos, and the complex fictive endeavour of the didactic-cum-science fiction novel. Shaw’s use of mock archival styling in Phase Shifting Index invokes the past—which is, strictly speaking, our past from the perspective of 2020—as a general idea of past, non-era specific. By cleaving the archive from its era, he is able to use its aesthetic styling as a means of casting the past in the role of the future. This tactic achieves a cognitive dissonance, reaching behind and ahead of the present to invoke it via its absence. Phase Shifting Index is the imaginative antithesis of the social media Live Video, which urgently informs me that “someone is going live,” lest I delay to watch it and relegate it to the status of home video by seeing it later. Watching Phase Shifting Index I am forced to search for the present, like looking for my own face in a picture taken somewhere I remember being. 

The subjects of Shaw’s seven videos are shown in embodied efforts to transform from the subject of a digital system to a disembodied digital subject. This transformation is depicted as a type of submission, manifestly rapturous in its actualization. After twenty minutes, heralded by a subtly building background noise, the formerly independent videos crescendo to a climax and in freak calibration slow into an intense synchrony. In this rupture, the figures dilute into graphics of themselves, and then in a total digital meltdown, (4) into graphics without reference. To me, this final moment signals a form of digital defection by the futuristic subcultures depicted in the videos, rejecting subservience to technology by effectuating submission to it on their own terms. 

In Phase Shifting Index, Shaw takes the aesthetic styling of the archival documentary and the narrative form of science fiction novel, and in the sum of their differences creates a work that surrounds the present and then breaks down around it. The success of this work is that it can be placed on a historical continuum of video art that invokes the current moment stretching back to recorded live actions. Through Phase Shifting Index, Shaw works against the trend of contemporaneity as content exemplified by the social media Live Video by admittance that the present, when displayed in a technological media, is never unedited. 

  1. London, Barbara. Video Art: The First Fifty Years. Phaidon Press Inc., 2020. pp. 76.
  2. König Gallery. “Live with Jeremy Shaw.” Instagram, April 4, 2020.
  3. Wall text for Phase Shifting Index, by Jeremy Shaw. 26 February – 20 April, 2020. Centre Pompidou, Paris.
  4. König Gallery. “Live with Jeremy Shaw.” Instagram, April 4, 2020.

Phase Shifting Index ran from September 26 – July 27, 2020 at Centre Pompidou in Paris, France.

Feature Image: Installation view of Phase Shifting Index, 2020 by Jeremy Shaw. Photo by Timo Ohler courtesy of Centre Pompidou.