Religious Ecstasy in Berlin

Artist Jeremy Shaw Speaks About Drugs, Religion, and the Power of Altered States

Interview: Bianca Heuser
Photography: Alex de Brabant
Images courtesy of Jeremy Shaw

Chances are that if you have experienced reality, you have felt the urge to escape it. All throughout history, from LSD to VR, humans have been inventing and tinkering with strategies to temporarily enter another realm. Jeremy Shaw has focused his work on the foundation of this desire. The Canadian artist uses a variety of media to explore an even wider range of altered states, like the high of a drug or the ecstasy induced by excessive dancing.

On the occasion of his latest solo exhibition at König Galerie in Berlin, Bianca Heuser spoke with Shaw about the intersections between psychedelic drugs, neuroscience, and religious experience.

Jeremy Shaw. Towards Universal Pattern Recognition (MM Pastors 2.1.01), 2016.

Jeremy Shaw. Towards Universal Pattern Recognition (9.20.00 Z.N. Prayer. 2-35 Olsen), 2016 (detail).

Bianca Heuser: Where did these photographs originate from?

Jeremy Shaw: They’re all original prints from newspaper archives. The works in this exhibition show religious motifs, but other pieces from the same series show drugs and dancing and technology, too. I’m always looking for photographs that capture an apparent moment of rapture. There are lots of crowd images from religious cults—which newspapers seemed to love to discuss. I have a whole selection on Children of God, a cult in California in the 1970s that River Phoenix’s family briefly was a part of.

Are you religious?

I’m not, no, but I am very interested in people who are—or more, their practices around religion. I’m more interested in other people’s spirituality. If I look at specific aspects of it, I think religion, the organization of it, can be quite frightening. But I find many other aspects really beautiful—this human need to believe in something, regardless of what that may be. I do love the human need to belong and to believe—and to escape—and the efforts one goes to to do that. Drugs and religion being the easiest way out. I was raised Catholic and then took loads of psychedelics when I was a teenager, denouncing it all. Now I’ve moved into softer things, like meditation, where I don’t have a hangover every morning. But I believe in belief, really. And I mean, I still go dancing, of course.

“Someone having a transcendental moment on drugs and someone talking to God is interchangeable to me.”

That can be meditative, too.

For sure, cathartic. But even before I started experimenting with drugs or was old enough to go to clubs, I experimented with these games where you knock yourself out.

Wait—how?

Well, you’d hyperventilate and someone would come from behind and choke you, basically so you’d pass out.

Who did you get to choke you?

My other 10-year-old friends! So even from a very young age, I’ve always been fascinated with altered states. And then my own experiences turned into a fascination with other people’s. I’m also very interested in science’s attempts to explain and quantify these states, to map the brain during these experiences in an effort to see the biology of it. If science can explain that this woman is experiencing religious rapture, but they claim it’s because this specific part of her brain is reacting to something, does that discount her experience? Does it validate it? I love this debate, it informs a lot of what I do these days.

Jeremy Shaw. Quickeners, 2014.

It’s especially interesting since we know so little about how the brain actually works!

It’s so early. I’m not sure about the exact dates, but the elementary nature of some of the experiments neuroscientists have to do… they seem so basic! But it’s totally necessary as we’re really at the birth of it as a valid form of science. The commitment and altruistic attitude of neuroscientists is amazing. They could work years on something that ends up being inconclusive. Again, it’s another form of belief. They believe in this as the way towards further evolution.

This speaks volumes on our concept of health. If we placed as much importance on mental health as we do on physical health, I’m sure this research would be much more advanced.

Absolutely, we have put so much more focus on things we can see. I have a bunch of photos of exorcisms from the 60s and 70s. I recently quite naively realized that most of these women were probably schizophrenic. Yet people thought they had the devil inside them.

Jeremy Shaw. DMT, 2004.

Jeremy Shaw. DMT, 2004.

Then add the layers of century-old misogyny and pathologizing of the female psyche…

Of course, the “crazy woman” effect. But I’m interested in this broad spectrum of altered states and the cultural associations, stigmas, and language we’ve created around them. In my film Quickeners I was able to push it all together: religion, neuroscience, altered states, the evolution of humanity, etc. The works in this new show are a sort of physical manifestation of my films, they bring many of these ideas into a sculptural form.

The way the glass is polished, all parts of the images are distorted except for a small circle focusing on something like a mouth in the image.

I focused on different parts of the body where it seems the rapture is most visibly concentrated. It adds an element of body horror to the photographs, revealing or amplifying something that seems to teeter between ecstasy and terror. It becomes this sci-fi twisting of her mouth, or repetition of eyes. The hands are often where this energy seems to manifest as well. People touching others with their hands when they’re apparently healing them—the body part as medium. The kaleidoscope is a clichéd way of portraying altered states in cinema—it’s a trope of psychedelia. So here, I’ve taken this cliché device of illustrating a psychedelic experience and applied it to a religious one. I see them all as the same thing. Someone having a transcendental moment on drugs and someone talking to God is interchangeable to me.

“It’s the ultimate transcendence of the human mind to evolve into a new, possibly enlightened form.”

Both are a means to escaping your reality.

Completely. Since you can’t technically capture the internal experience, we’ve created things like the kaleidoscope to illustrate it. I love these clichés we’ve agreed on.

The same clichés exist in the way we talk about the human brain, like they’re computers. It’s so inaccurate: You don’t store memory. You don’t process information.

With altered states, it’s basically a semiotics of effects. We create these visuals to illustrate things still undocumentable. You see wormholes or vortexes in movies that win Oscars and in the worst television shows, and we all know what it means. We’ve created a visual language to represent the unseen experience.

Your video installation DMT does not attempt to visualize the trips of its subjects. Instead, it aims at alienation and further mystification of the experience. The piece is uncomfortable to watch, because you can’t relate to the person you are watching at all.

Exactly, it’s really frustrating because you have no access to what they are experiencing except through the inarticulate text. When you take DMT, it’s this incredibly quick and extremely intense up and down and return to being sober again. The subtitles of the videos come from the subject’s trying to explain what happened immediately after. But they can’t. Language almost completely fails to elucidate something this mind-blowing. That work really was a key piece to me because it set me on this idea of positing conceptual strategies with the psychedelic.

What does tripping on DMT feel like?

It feels like exploding into nothing and becoming one with everything. My friend Phil used to refer to it as “The Paint Splatter,” which is about as accurate of a description as I’ve heard. Although it’s not a completely organic splatter—it has a super precise, digital feel to it, like a hyper-pixelated paint splatter. But even still, that’s totally not enough. I haven’t taken it in years and yet it comes up in discussion all the time. But I’m still not able to sum it up very eloquently as it really does defy language, which is what makes it so frustrating and so inspiring—having an experience that you really cannot share. It’s truly the most mind-blowing thing I’ve ever done and absolutely points at the potential of the human mind.  


Did you go to a ton of raves as a kid?

I totally did. But I was a skateboarder, and in the 1990s you weren't supposed to be mixing subcultures. So we would go to raves supposedly ironically and call it a “treat,” so we could make fun of it. But then we’d go and actually get totally into it! Eventually I got very deep into drum and bass and it snowballed from there. Staying by the code of a subculture so strictly, though… a very 90s thing that thankfully ended.

What sparked your interest in artificial intelligence?

It just seems like the inevitable evolution of humanity. And as that, it is both exciting and terrifying. 


Jeremy Shaw. Introduction to The Memory Personality, 2012. 

Do you think we as a species are supposed to understand how we work well enough to create AI?

I think that’s where the next step in evolution will happen, or in areas of augmented intelligence. And I see that evolution as a form of transcendence. It’s the ultimate transcendence of the human mind to evolve into a new, possibly enlightened form. I think AI could potentially outsmart and therefore dominate humanity, where feelings might not matter if force comes into play. Perhaps it will be a battle between the augmented and the artificial.

The discourse around AI is essentially one about power. Is your work, concerned with artificial intelligence, raptures, and religion, also concerned with power?

In the willingness to submit to something more powerful than oneself, yes. I love that people need to believe. I love this idea of a submission to something greater than you. God as the ultimate power. Drugs are power. Technology is power. It’s like essentially people are really on a quest to submit, you know?

Religion makes things especially comfortable: You answer this one question, and you can avoid a lot of the others.

Exactly. Resist, resist, resist, and then give yourself over. A devout belief in one thing can really free you of dealing with so much. I think this willingness to submit is another true characteristic of being human. People spend their entire lives waiting for it, you know? Submission to death as the ultimate transcendence. 

Interview: Bianca Heuser
Photography: Alex de Brabant
Images courtesy of Jeremy Shaw and Koenig Galerie, Berlin