Cyborgs and Human Omniscience: Jeremy Shaw's Quantification Trilogy

At Kunstverein in Hamburg, the artist presents a vision of futuristic societies, mixing hard facts and pure fiction to disorienting effect

With the human race on the brink of extinction, a small community of outsiders have taken to injecting themselves with machine DNA and staging near-forgotten rituals in an attempt to prolong their time on Earth. Named after their central belief, ‘The Liminals’ indulge in esoteric behaviours – singing, dancing, meditation – in an attempt to gain access to a speculative paraspace between the physical and the virtual that they believe could help humankind progress towards its next evolutionary stage. This is the future as told by Jeremy Shaw’s Liminals (2017), the second film in his ‘Quantification Trilogy’, which is joined by two other pseudo-documentaries that convey stand-alone but interconnected stories about marginalized individuals trying to reach transcendence in societies where rational thought has replaced traditional belief systems.

Shaw’s exhibition at Kunstverein in Hamburg, also titled ‘Quantification Trilogy’, opens with Quickeners (2014), the earliest work in the series and the only one compiled from archival material. The black and white footage, which we are told depicts scenes 500 years in the future, is in fact of a gathering of Pentecostal Christians in the 1950s. But, as with Liminals, an authoritative voice – speaking in what is often referred to as BBC English – inserts a narrative of Shaw’s devising, one that’s pure sci-fi. We learn that the human race has been replaced by Quantum Humans, purely rational beings that have reached immortality and omniscience though a wireless connection to The Hive, a database of human history. Some have been diagnosed with Human Atavism Syndrome, a rare malfunction that causes them to lose connection to The Hive, thereby affecting their speech and position in mainstream society.

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Jeremy Shaw, I Can See Forever, 2018, HD video installation still, co-produced by MedianBoard, Brandenburg, and KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, with support from the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and König Galerie, Berlin/London

Shaw’s premise is not as fantastical as it sounds: in 2017, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk told Vanity Fair that he believes his company Neuralink is only four or five years away from developing neural lace, an implant that would allow wireless communication between our brains and digital devices. Just as it has become increasingly difficult to discern real news from satire, science, too, is coming to resemble science-fiction. The ‘Quantification Trilogy’ takes full advantage of this confusion, mixing hard scientific facts, futurist speculation and pure fiction to disorienting effect. It is a testament to Shaw’s masterful scriptwriting that the plot of the third film, I Can See Forever (2018), which follows the sole survivor of a secret government plan to merge humans with machines, does not sound completely implausible.

The exhibition also features the photographic series Towards Universal Pattern Recognition (2016-18), which comprises archival images of rapture-style awakenings held behind prisimic acrylic, but the kaledeiscopic effect of these works is slight in comparison to the temporal disorientation of the trilogy. When viewed clockwise, the films play in the order in which Shaw produced them, which may sound logical, but means that we begin in the distant future and work backwards in time. Additionally, each film takes on the technological and socio-historical characteristics of decades past: the wannabe cyborgs of Liminals, for example, resemble garden-variety hippies and are shot in a naturalisic documentary style popular in the seventies. What remain constant amongst these manipulations are the voiceovers, which alternately mock or patronize the behaviour of the films’ subjects with the self-assured superiority of an ethnographic documentarian – and assume that we, too, are in on the ridicule.

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Jeremy Shaw, Quickeners, 2014, HD video, installation. Courtesy: the artist and König Galerie, Berlin/London

While a world in which science has replaced faith-based philosophy might feel reassuring in the age of ‘post-truth’ politics, suggesting as it does a future goverened by logic instead of gut feelings, Shaw knows that we have not yet evolved into rational creatures. As the musical crescendo of each film hits, we want to be right there with the writhing, ecstatic bodies on screen, because they remind us, for a few brief moments, of what it means to be human.

Jeremy Shaw: Quantification Trilogy’ is on view at Kunstverein in Hamburg until 22 July.

Main image: Jeremy Shaw, I Can See Forever, 2018, HD video installation still, co-produced by MedianBoard, Brandenburg, and KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, with support from the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin/London

Chloe Stead is a writer and critic based in Berlin.

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