Thursday, October 17, 2013

03 Covert Surveillance

Following the odd briefcase incident I dutifully wrote up my report as requested by Mr Hastings. It felt very strange to be putting in this much effort for something I wasn’t being paid for that had no obvious rewards, but too much had happened for me to simply walk away now. Whatever narrative hook Neurocam was using seemed to be working on me. Part of me felt strangely flattered that so much time and energy had been spent by the perpetrators of this experience purely for my benefit, which was why I felt motivated to continue. I also now had a sense of belonging to something, in spite of the anonymous nature of whatever it was. If this was a new type of game set up by persons unknown, I was happy to play along with them and see where it led. I wasn’t really expecting a response to my report and was quite surprised when Hastings promptly wrote back with the following:

Dear Operative (name withheld for confidentiality reasons)

Your report for Neurocam Assignment NCI-4351/02 has been received and filed. Neurocam International's Operations Division is currently reviewing your report. Your performance will soon be assessed in accordance with our operational criteria. The results of this assessment will be noted on your file.

Neurocam International appreciates the unorthodox nature of this assignment and your willingness to continue your association with the organisation despite this unusual request.

You will receive the details of your next assignment within 8–10 working days.


Charles Hastings

Head, Operations Division Neurocam International

Not exactly a highly personalised note of gratitude and encouragement. So Neurocam were keeping a file on me, and assessing my performance in accordance to their operational criteria. Not knowing what their operational criteria was made this statement a little meaningless, but nonetheless it was interesting to know that I was being tested in some way. I appreciated Hastings’ acknowledgment of the unorthodox nature of the assignment and my willingness to continue, although the general tone was so detached and impersonal that I couldn’t imagine ever being able to have a beer down at the pub with him. The email seemed to be so generic that I wondered if perhaps it was a form letter that had been sent out to many people in response to many different assignments. I was excited to think that there could be a vast number of assignments in store, all of which were unorthodox in nature.

In considering that there was a strong possibility that I wasn’t the only one running around doing crazy things for Neurocam, I still didn’t understand why I hadn’t heard anything about this ‘game’ or whatever it was via the media or the Internet. Although I could see why participation necessitated an element of mystery, it didn’t make sense that other participants wouldn’t at least blog or tweet about their experiences. Neurocam did make it clear that they wanted us to maintain total secrecy in regard to our involvement, but I found it hard to believe that someone hadn’t spilled the beans. I wasn’t exactly sure what Neurocam’s policy on telling friends and family about our involvement was, so I decided to email Hastings and ask him. His reply was more than a little disturbing:

Dear Operative (name withheld for confidentiality reasons)

In the Operational Security section of your assignments please note the following information: operatives are strictly forbidden from revealing any details pertaining to this assignment. If you wish to continue your involvement with our organisation absolute discretion is paramount. Operatives may not divulge any information about their assignments or affiliation with the organisation to anyone. Partners, family, friends and colleagues are no exception. Any operatives found to be in breach of this contractual agreement will be terminated immediately and removed from our database. If you do not agree to these terms and conditions you must cease your involvement with us immediately.


Charles Hastings

Head, Operations Division Neurocam International

Once again I was reminded of Fincher’s film Fight Club and Tyler Durden’s non-negotiable request that all members of the club were unable to mention their subversive activities to anyone under any circumstances. At the conclusion of the film it became clear that Durden’s subversive agenda (blowing up credit card company buildings) was something that could only be orchestrated with total secrecy. It was an interesting angle, especially in the context of a game like Neurocam that was quite possibly involving many players. Surely it was some kind of test to see how committed we were to the game; to see if we were prepared to go the extra mile. Creating a scenario where we were expected to keep secrets from partners was extreme; I imagined a hypothetical scenario where a husband might think his wife was cheating on him when she lied about her whereabouts while out on an assignment. 

Fortunately I didn’t have to face this dilemma as I was single and rarely saw my family who lived in another country. I wondered what I would do if I were in a relationship, whether or not I would be prepared to keep secrets from and lie to a partner. I thought about the odd-looking couple at the party a few weeks back who seemed to be talking publicly about Neurocam. How would Neurocam know if we were being indiscreet? Obviously to post information on blogs, Facebook or Twitter would be easily picked up, but to have conversations with people at parties or in the privacy of one’s own home? The idea of Neurocam having a team of people who were constantly following us and bugging our homes and work places to ensure we maintained absolute discretion was totally far-fetched. Unless of course Neurocam was operating on a multi-million dollar budget and had no respect for our privacy. I was sure that I hadn’t seen anything in our ‘contract’ about waiving our rights to privacy, but I hadn’t looked that closely. I wondered if Neurocam was making me into a more secretive type of person.

That night I rented Fincher’s earlier film The Game, which I had seen before, but wanted to examine in more detail after my latest Neurocam dealings. I couldn’t stop thinking about the wider implications of a game-like situation that attempted to encompass one’s entire reality as well as demand complete loyalty and secrecy. In The Game, the CRS were a massive and well-funded organisation with enough money, connections and power to completely subvert a subscriber’s day-to-day life experiences. It was all an elaborate theatre of course, but one that was certainly possible with enough planning and resources. So why was this idea constrained to the world of fiction? Surely Fincher had proved with his film that this idea was not only achievable, but that there would be a demand for this type of practice. Extremely wealthy people who wanted the ‘ultimate experience’ would surely pay good money to have a team of experts manufacture an alternate reality adventure based around their most extravagant and outrageous desires. The key to Fincher’s concept was that these adventures happened unexpectedly, with unpredictable outcomes. If participants signed up for an experience knowing exactly what would happen when, the effectiveness of the exercise would be lost.

The idea of a type of recreational reality altering experience could be traced back further in film and television history with Gene Levitt’s 1978 TV series Fantasy Island, which I had watched religiously as a teenager. In Fantasy Island people from all walks of life could pay to visit a mysterious island in the Pacific where the enigmatic host Mr Roarke would orchestrate elaborate works of theater, which enabled them to live out their fantasies. As with The Game, the core elements of these scenarios occurred in such a way that they would always take participants by surprise. And like John Fowles’ 1966 novel The Magus, the experiences would always teach participants something about themselves.

Fascinated by the origins of such radical ideas I googled The Game and Fantasy Island to see if they were based on any literary precedents. Sure enough Wikipedia mentioned that in Fincher’s script for The Game, the whole idea of Consumer Recreation Services was derived from GK Chesterton’s 1905 novel The Club of Queer Trades where he writes about a similar organisation he calls the Adventure and Romance Agency. Chesterton writes:

The Adventure and Romance Agency has been started to meet a great modern desire. On every side, in conversation and in literature, we hear of the desire for a larger theatre of events for something to waylay us and lead us splendidly astray. Now the man who feels this desire for a varied life pays a yearly or a quarterly sum to the Adventure and Romance Agency; in return, the Adventure and Romance Agency undertakes to surround him with startling and weird events. As a man is leaving his front door, an excited sweep approaches him and assures him of a plot against his life; he gets into a cab, and is driven to an opium den; he receives a mysterious telegram or a dramatic visit, and is immediately in a vortex of incidents.

I found it intriguing that Chesterton had thought of this idea back in 1905 and felt that if this core theme had existed in historical literature for over 100 years that it must have surfaced somewhere in reality. Was this somehow linked to Neurocam? Was Neurocam a modern-day version of the Adventure and Romance Agency? So far it didn’t obviously appear to be a commercial enterprise, but couched within the intricate complexities of new types of games and marketing strategies, it was entirely possible. I mentally ran through all of the people I knew and wondered who would be the most likely to surreptitiously pay good money for me to have a GK Chesterton style ‘experience’. And unlike The Game, I was midway between birthdays, so it was obviously not a highly inventive birthday present.

Over the next few days I thought more about the implications of my Chesterton literature discovery. The idea of something like the Adventure and Romance Agency was intriguing and exciting, not only to myself, but also probably for most people. It could almost be seen as the ultimate form of entertainment—far surpassing literature, theater, art, film, sport or games. It was based on the essence of human experience and what makes up the construct of our reality. Chesterton very eloquently writes about the need for this type of experience:

It has continually struck us that there is no element in modern life that is more lamentable than the fact that the modern man has to seek all artistic existence in a sedentary state. If he wishes to float into fairyland, he reads a book; if he wishes to dash into the thick of battle, he reads a book; if he wishes to soar into heaven, he reads a book; if he wishes to slide down the banisters, he reads a book. We give him these visions, but we give him exercise at the same time, the necessity of leaping from wall to wall, of fighting strange gentlemen, of running down long streets from pursuers -- all healthy and pleasant exercises. We give him a glimpse of that great morning world of Robin Hood or the Knights Errant, when one great game was played under the splendid sky. We give him back his childhood, that godlike time when we can act stories, be our own heroes, and at the same instant dance and dream.

I found myself hoping that Neurocam really was something like this; something that would make me feel alive, inspired and engaged in something exciting and mysterious. Something that tapped into childhood fantasies and relinquished adult responsibilities. I felt ready for anything that they would throw at me, no matter how far out of my comfort zone it might take me. I was not disappointed when I finally received my next instructions from Mr Hastings:

NEUROCAM TRAINING EXERCISE – NTE – 9001/01 – Covert Surveillance


To hone operative (name withheld for security reasons) covert surveillance abilities in anticipation of future assignment requirements, via the observation of an arbitrary individual.


Below are the procedural details for this assignment. Any deviation from the operational protocol described may result in disciplinary action against the operative.

1. There is a map attached to this assignment. This map details the exact location you are to select your subject , and to follow them from. If possible, a camera should be taken on this assignment.

2. Travel to your location and find a suitable place to observe people in the area. Select your subject.
Note: take time to select your subject. This is a training exercise, it is important you select a person you can observe for at least 30 minutes.

3. Once your subject has been selected, take note of the time.

4. Begin tailing your selected subject.

5. Throughout this exercise, you are expected to make periodic notes on the movements and actions of your subject. In addition, whilst it is encouraged that you photograph the subject discreetly, a written description including identifying features will suffice. At no point are you to approach the target or let him/her become aware of your existence. For further details on this stipulation, please refer to the Operational Security Brief within this assignment.

6. Continue this exercise for at least 30 minutes.

7. Ensure you notate the location you cease tailing the target. If at any time the target enters a building you cannot enter, for whatever reason, remain outside the building so that you may continue tailing them if they should leave before the minimum time has elapsed.

8. Submit a report to the Operations Division Photographic evidence is encouraged, but not essential.


This is a ‘covert’ training exercise. If, at any point, the subject of your assignment becomes aware of your existence, you are to IMMEDIATELY abort the assignment. If this occurs, you are to vacate the area, wait 20 minutes, return and select a new subject.

Operatives are strictly forbidden from revealing any details pertaining to this assignment. Any operative found doing so will suffer immediate dismissal from Neurocam.


The time restrictions of Neurocam’s ongoing operations dictate that Neurocam Training exercise NTE-9001/01 must be completed by (date withheld for confidentiality reasons).


Charles Hastings

Head, Operations Division Neurocam International

This was certainly a departure from the pattern that had been forming with my assignments so far. I speculated that Neurocam wanted to hone my covert surveillance abilities in anticipation of future assignments to give me some training, as it were. Part of me was slightly less than enthusiastic about this, as I had anticipated something that pushed me into the thick of the action. But this was Neurocam and I suspected that there would be significantly more to this assignment than a mere training exercise. With Chesterton’s story fresh in my mind I imagined the situation might well be a set-up; that Neurocam would somehow steer me towards a ‘target’ who was working for them. Or they might be following me and something might happen while I was carrying out the exercise. 

As usual there was an infinite range of possibilities and the fact that what they had asked of me was actually very strange, not to mention borderline legally, morally and ethically questionable. To stalk some (possibly) random member of the public, secretly take pictures of them and email them to some anonymous shadowy organisation was quite a big ask. Sure, it took me out of my comfort zone, but to what end? In the context of an ongoing narrative it definitely intrigued me as I thought about the possibilities of future assignments where I would potentially need to use these newly acquired skills. This in itself was enough to motivate me to do something I found to be a little creepy and invasive yet strangely thrilling.

The map provided by Neurocam for this assignment marked out a starting point located at Flinders Street Station’s Elizabeth Street exit. No time frame or date was given for when the assignment was to take place, but I had to complete it within a week. The location was a place that I frequented often during my weekly routine, so I knew that it was always busy and there would be no shortage of ‘subjects’. I considered whether it would be better to do this at night or during the day; during the day I would be more visible, but at night there would be less people around. It felt very odd just thinking of the practicalities of what I was about to do.

The next day I planned to take the train to work so I would have to pass through Flinders Street Station anyway. There was no harm in doing some preliminary reconnaissance. It occurred to me that I was starting to change my routines because of Neurocam. Perhaps the very process of changing these routines was giving me some kind of experience; altering my destiny in some small but significant way. I was essentially accepting their directives without question. Any rationale for why this was acceptable was mainly coming from myself and from my own ideas in relation to what was happening to me. I thought about some of the sociological precedents for blindly following orders. 

Cult religions were renowned for brainwashing their members into unquestioning loyalty to the cult leadership. But cult religions had very specific belief systems and strong, charismatic leaders who paid individual attention to the ‘flock’. Neurocam could be fostering a band of blindly loyal followers, but there was no clear directive or even rapport between members. And there certainly wasn’t a strong leader, unless the mysterious CEO Ms Fischer counted as one. If she was the leader, she certainly didn’t spend any time making us lowly operatives feel special. I suppose there was some kind of belief system with Neurocam in that the element of mystery and excitement was in itself something we believed had meaning and relevance to our lives. Whether or not this was entirely self-constructed was as yet unclear. In this sense Neurocam was like a blank canvas onto which we projected our own ideas of what we wanted it to be.

As I stepped off the train at the tail end of rush hour, there were people everywhere rushing in all directions. I stopped walking, conscious of disrupting the flow, and observed them. If I was to randomly pick one of these individuals, how would I be able to identify them through the dense crowds as I tailed them for thirty minutes? Obviously choosing a thirty-something man of medium height in a charcoal-grey business suit would prove immensely challenging, so I would have to look for some uniquely identifying characteristics. Things that stand out in a crowd are actually surprisingly difficult to find during rush hour. The majority of commuters are dressed in a similar fashion and are on their way to work. 

I tried a test case and started following a tall man, distinguishable mainly by his suit trousers, which had way too much clearance above his nondescript dress shoes. As the man strode confidently through the crowd I matched his pace and slipped into step with him several paces behind. This went well until he paused to check his phone. Being one of those types who prefer not to attempt locomotion while reading or sending text messages, he stopped walking altogether and stood like an island in the middle of a moving sea of people. Matching this move was something I was totally unprepared for and as I stopped just behind him I realised how ridiculous I must look. I decided to abort this attempt and try again. It occurred to me that I was already late for work and needed to make getting there a priority. I regretted not being able to continue the assignment until later. Why would I rather muck about playing clumsy spy games in the street than go and make decent money doing something I was actually good at?

At work I was restless and distracted. I had an overwhelming urge to tell someone what was going on and get some much needed perspective, but worried that it might compromise my Neurocam adventures. As Neurocam had clearly stated, it was a choice: either play by their rules or walk away. Such an uncompromising proposition reminded me of a scene in the Wachowski brothers 1999 film The Matrix where Keanu Reeves is forced to choose the red pill or the blue pill to either keep living his ‘normal’ life or step boldly into the unknown and discover something profound and disturbing. Of course Reeve’s character Neo had no idea of the outcomes of this decision at the time; he had to take the risk and commit to something he knew very little about. 

Was this what I was doing with Neurocam? Taking a risk and committing myself to something I knew precious little about? I was again reminded of the enigmatic quote on Neurocam’s website by CEO Bridget Fischer:

Some of the most rewarding experiences we have come about through random circumstances of which we have no real understanding. It is sometimes important to commit to something we know very little about if the act of commitment in itself becomes part of an experience.

Obviously my commitment was part of my experience, but was I going to have a profoundly life- changing revelation like Neo who discovers that all life on Earth is nothing more than an elaborate facade created by a malevolent cyber-intelligence to placate us? And was it really a risk? Undertaking a task where I was effectively stalking someone did constitute a minor legal risk as one could potentially be arrested for harassment if the person being stalked made a complaint to the authorities. This was assuming that I would be on my own out there and Neurocam would not be monitoring the situation.

By lunchtime I had psyched myself into having another attempt at my training exercise. I walked back to my starting point armed with my trusty iPhone with which I could take pictures, video or notes without seeming too conspicuous. Loitering around the station entrance I was pleased to see that a more diverse crowd were present. I was poised for action, waiting for a distinguished subject to walk through the station gates. Seconds later a young woman wearing a fluorescent lime-green t-shirt emerged. Looking at her braided hair I knew that this was my target. I immediately fell into step with her and adjusted to her pace, which was much slower than I would usually walk. She was traveling light, with only a small handbag, and didn’t look like she was off to work. Perhaps she had come into the city for some shopping.

As we made our way along Elizabeth Street with me following about 10 meters behind, I thought about the numerous movies or TV programs I had seen where covert surveillance had been a common theme. In these scenarios the person tailing the subject, usually a private investigator, seemed to be uncannily adept at following people for long periods of time while effortlessly blending into the crowd. As I stalked my victim trying to effect total nonchalance, I re-played many of these scenes in my head and thought about how sometimes our perception of reality is so heavily influenced by film and TV culture. It was very unusual for me to be in this situation in the first place, but even stranger that the only point of reference I had was related to pure fabrication.

As the woman I was following walked slowly but purposely along Elizabeth Street and turned right into Little Lonsdale Street, I realised that she was probably heading to Myers. Until now my task had been relatively simple, I had followed at a discreet distance and had successfully blended into the crowd. I had even managed a couple of snaps of my subject, taken when she was waiting at pedestrian crossings. While taking these shots I had tried to make it look as if I was simply checking my phone, albeit at a rather high angle. My suspicions were confirmed, as she turned right again into Myers and walked along the crowed isle towards what looked like the women's clothing department. I could already tell that this was going to make my task somewhat more difficult. As my subject reached the clothing department and began to browse various racks, I had to somehow counter her moves with some of my own that did not make me stand out like a creepy stalker. It was entirely possible that a man like myself could be browsing a women’s clothing department for a present for a partner, sister or daughter.

I realised that I had never been in this situation before, in spite of the fact I was on official Neurocam business. As I pretended to browse displays for cosmetics I didn’t even know existed, I was all the while glancing over at my subject who seemed absorbed in her shopping. All of a sudden I became acutely aware that we were the only two people in that section of the store. This made the situation infinitely more fraught as I realised that looking at my subject was now a potential danger zone. This was confirmed as my next glance over at her was met with her looking directly back at me. 

I quickly looked away, but felt incredibly stressed and nervous. I had to do something; I couldn’t abort the mission now. Being completely disarmed by the situation, all I could manage was to pick up an Estée Lauder lip-gloss tester and stare dumbly at it. I could sense the woman’s presence, but was too afraid to look at her. At this point I realised that this was the answer; to sense her presence rather than overtly look at her. Adopting this technique I tuned into a kind of spatial awareness that connected us like two points on a flat plane. As she moved further away, I slowly gravitated closer, all the while not looking at her and keeping myself absorbed in my assumed role, which was pretending to be choosing make-up for a partner. This worked well and we were able to co-exist in a normal and non-threatening dynamic. As she eventually walked up to the counter to purchase some items I stole a glance at my phone and found that I had become so absorbed in the task at hand that I had actually exceeded my thirty-minute time requirement significantly.

I felt so invigorated at having overcome the challenge of covertly observing my subject at close range in a difficult situation that I wanted to continue. I knew that the real challenge would be to continue following her after she had seen me close-up in the cosmetics department. If she saw me after that she would surely suspect that I was following her and quite possibly take action. This meant that there was now far more at stake and I would not be able to make the slightest mistake. For the next hour I followed the woman in the lime-green t-shirt all around Melbourne Central and on a tram back to Flinders Street Station. I had mastered the art of covert surveillance.

That evening while I wrote up my report I wondered if Hastings would be proud of me for going beyond the call of duty. I decided to make excelling in every assignment my new strategy—if I was going to play this game I may as well get the highest score possible. Neurocam had already told me that they were evaluating our performance, so I knew that they would notice my style of game play. In a moment of self-reflection I observed that instead of going out drinking with friends, I was spending a Friday night at home alone writing up an overly detailed report on bizarre actions I had carried out for a mysterious organisation of which I knew nothing about.

Later that evening after a few glasses of red and endless roaming around the Internet’s more interesting nooks and crannies, I discovered a very intriguing link to a news article entitled Kidnapping for Kicks in New York. In this article reporter Matt Wells investigates a bizarre new business in New York City where a team of artists are paid to violently kidnap clients. Each kidnapping is tailored for the client’s specific needs and can take place at any time over a number of days or weeks, providing an element of surprise. This was really quite fantastic and very relevant to Fincher’s idea of the CRS and Chesterton’s Adventure and Romance Agency. So the idea of people subscribing to a business enterprise to receive an ‘experience’ had now transcended the realms of fiction. Jason, a carpenter in his mid-twenties had gone through the kidnap experience three times and says, "It's about stepping outside of yourself. I wanted to see what I could do." 

What can one do when one is being kidnapped? Although this was in some ways more extreme, it was starting to sound uncannily similar to my recent experiences with Neurocam. Apparently Brock Enright, a twenty-five-year-old artist who originally set it up as a piece of video installation art, created the business. I wasn’t an expert in American contemporary art, but I thought that kidnapping people on the streets of Manhattan seemed pretty radical even for the art world. I found it vaguely distasteful that contemporary American society accepted kidnapping as a leisure activity when there were still places in the world where real kidnapping was an everyday, life-threatening occurrence.

I thought about the similarities between Enright’s kidnapping business and Neurocam International. Although Enright’s kidnappings were spontaneous to a degree, the process was heavily mediated by an actual transaction in which the client was essentially paying for a service. So far Neurocam had not actively initiated any form of direct interaction with me and had relied on my willingness to participate to make things happen. This did not mean that they would not use direct action in the future however, and I admit that this thought excited me greatly. Having read about the New York kidnappings, I actually craved a similar type of experience. With Neurocam there was a frustrating lack of control in the process of interaction, as it did not conform to the structure of a commercial enterprise. Enright’s kidnapping clients however were paying for something to happen, so they always knew that Enright and crew would (eventually) deliver. If they didn’t, they would rightfully be able to ask for their money back. In my situation, I had signed up for something unknown and had not paid any money. I could not demand consumer satisfaction as no commercial contract had been entered into. The only precedent for this type experience I could find was Fowles’ novel The Magus, where the unsuspecting protagonist Nicholas Urfe enters a ‘masque’ and his reality is subverted by the elaborate machinations of an anonymous society whose motivations, even at the conclusion of the book, are unclear. Obviously Neurocam must be aware of all of these texts, movies and enterprises, but who were their real influences and what game were they really playing? 


  1. Hey I really enjoyed these posts, I hope you'll be updating in the future.

    I first learned about Neurocam almost 10 years ago, and I've always wanted to know who was really behind it. Did you ever learn the real story?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks for your comments, you've inspired me to continue updating the blog. As far as the 'real' story goes, you'll just have to continue reading...

  4. "Thanks for your comments, you've inspired me to continue updating the blog. As far as the 'real' story goes, you'll just have to continue reading.."

    Looking forward to it!