The artist’s interest in the universal desire for spiritual life, a yearning for some higher power or intelligence, or to “reach for something beyond,” as he puts it, has led him to some interesting places.
In Quickeners (2014), Shaw researched the history of Pentecostal snake-handlers, using 1960s archival footage to imagine a human community, 500 years in the future. These new humanoids have undergone an intelligence explosion and become hyper-rational, save a small subset who are afflicted with a rare syndrome characterized by a “need to believe,” one that leads them to resurrect antiquated rituals (like serpent worship, artmaking, and dance) in an effort to transcend their reality.
His most recent video Liminals (2017), currently on view at the Venice Biennale, similarly focuses on an imagined community, this one a few decades into the future. The piece is a sci-fi pseudo-documentary, albeit one that is shot in black and white, partly using a 16mm camera. It follows a “periphery-altruistic culture,” a community that has lived through a failed attempt at the singularity—the belief, popularly associated with Silicon Valley futurists, that computer and AI technology will eventually outrun or merge with the capacities of the human brain. The film’s protagonists attempt to reactivate the “faith cell” in the brain through a fusion of contemporary technology and spiritual ritual.
Liminals, with its expressions of uncertainty regarding humanity’s future (coupled with a degree of optimism for the power of collective rituals, and science) taps into a broader undercurrent present at the Biennale, and beyond.