An Interview with Jeremy Shaw

Jeremy Shaw is an artist living and working in Berlin. Originally from Vancouver, he is as well-regarded for his artwork as his music production under the pseudonym Circlesquare. Shaw’s work often addresses the theme of alternate realities or altered mind states, exploring topics such as neuroimaging, time travel, psychedelic drug experience, and various music and youth subcultures, employing a range of techniques from video to sculpture.

If you made it to last summer’s Based in Berlin show you might recall Shaw’s two featured pieces: The Image of a Generation (2011) – a public poster project, and Best Minds (2007) – an affecting and epic work covering the entire ground floor of the KW with a large dual film projection of straight edge dancers in slow-motion, accompanied by Shaw’s own looming yet ethereal score, produced using deteriorating tape reels as part of a method inspired by composer William Basinski. The latter was – in our opinion – one of the most exciting works of Based in Berlin, and one that initiated a desire to ask him more about his practice.

Your art often deals with the theme of transcendence; why do you think us humans seek such states?

For all sorts of different reasons – to escape the mundane, escape a harsh reality, curiosity, addiction, boredom, fun, etc… It’s an age-old idea, to transcend, however you choose to do it. I think it’s ingrained in the human condition really, the urge to explore or search for the possibility that there’s more to our existence than the immediate reality of our surroundings.

‘Transcendental Capacities (Brian Eno – An Ending [Ascent], 1983)’, 2011
Kirlian polaroid, 3.25″ x 4.25″

Your Kirlian photography experiments remind me of aura photography and other processes created in order to try and prove or record, in some scientific realm, the existence of spirituality. What interests you about the meeting of these worlds?

Yes, exactly – Kirlian photography was initially used in scientific experiments but was thrown out due to a vast amount of uncontrollable variables that affect it. But it was taken in by mystics and other non-traditional medical types for that exactly that – it visually captures an image of the magnetic field that exists around object – which is often referred to, by said types, as the aura. I’m very interested in the grey area between science and mysticism, especially how either attempts to map or illustrate areas of altered states. I find the lack of absolute certainty in the conclusions of either really exciting, and that at the end of the day, it often comes down to a matter of faith.

Have you worked with scientists directly for any pieces?

No, thus far I’ve maintained a considered distance between my work and certified science.

In terms of subject matter your work bears some relation to Psychedelic Art. Is this an art form you admire?

Yes, I do admire it. I admire its attempt to translate psychedelic experience, as well as the attempt to incite them. With the former, I work in a similar vein in that my work is often about the translation of such experiences, only I am generally using conceptual or reductive strategies rather than the sensory bombardment and effects of psychedelic art. It’s rare that I am going for an incitement of a psychedelic experience with my work, but I’m certainly into other people doing it.

‘Best Minds Part One, 2007 (image from excerpt)’
2-channel video installation with original score
Dimensions variable
(videos play out of sync on two opposing walls with the viewer in-between) 

What made you decide to live in Berlin, and do you feel living here has affected your work in any particular way?

I had lived in Vancouver most of my life, beyond a few 6-months stints in London, but I was travelling a lot to Europe with music and art, and Berlin was always a favourite, so it just seemed to make sense. It was also simply time for me to get away from where I came from. I think it’s affected my work in ways, loosened it up a bit – but nothing I can truly put my finger on. Maybe if I move away from here I’ll be able to pinpoint what it is that it actually did more specifically… It’s always hard to know what you’re up to while it’s happening.

For the piece The Image of a Generation for the Based in Berlin show, posters advertising the 1981 film Christiane F in seven different languages were posted around town; what was the idea behind this work and why did you choose that particular film?

It stemmed initially from my childhood vision of Berlin being totally created by Christiane F. I grew up with the film serving as my only reference for what the city looked and felt like – all dystopian grey with hard drugs and a Bowie soundtrack. When I finally moved to Berlin, I found it very interesting that many ex-pats I met from all over the world shared this same experience, and yet how unaware most Germans were of the film’s impact beyond Germany.  This is partly why I ended up using only foreign language versions of the original posters – in reference to the global phenomena of the film, and the inevitable translations and dubs it underwent as a result.

‘The Image of a Generation’, 2011
3 month public poster project in Berlin, DE
9 individual offset lithographs, 59.4 x 84.1 cm each

This piece is not obviously an artwork at first glance; how did you find making public art in this way, in contrast to making work for a gallery space?

Yes, it’s a relatively subtle intervention, but one that I found quite fulfilling and successful – especially in regards to the non-art-going public. Whereas most of my work in the gallery context is a comment or conceptual distilling of altered states, The Image of a Generation actually does incite, however briefly, a time-slippage of sorts. So although I mentioned before that I’m generally not attempting to recreate that altered moment, this piece does, quite innocuously, create a debased sense of time with the viewer.

You are both a musician and an artist, kept in some way separate by the use of different names for both undertakings. Did one come before the other and how do they relate?

It was actually during art school that I first got submersed in music, and where it ended up taking over for a while. But from around 2002 to 2009 I made my best effort to work on them both with equal rigour, going back and forth from deadline to deadline. It became very difficult to maintain this in the last few years and at the end of touring in 2009, I made the decision to focus solely on art for a while. That said, since making this decision, music has begun to infiltrate my art practice much more, both as a scoring technique and conceptual strategy. I’ve also been slowly working on an old side-project with Konrad Black called Headgear. So there will actually be some new music in the near-ish future.

See more of Jeremy’s work at
Cover portrait by Trevor Good.