Monday, October 6, 2014

06 Meeting Charles Hastings

In the days that followed my meeting with The Vorticist I became increasingly agitated about the impending results of the career advancement assignment. After two weeks I began to think that no contact from Neurocam might mean that I had been cut adrift. The sense of loss I felt about possibly not having Neurocam in my life anymore made me realise how much the experience meant to me. I checked in with my Neurocam friends and none of them had heard from Neurocam either, which made me feel slightly better. It was extremely frustrating not having been told what the timeframe for possible promotions might be; our assignments had always been regular as clockwork, but this was a different situation and once again we were at Neurocam’s mercy. Part of me felt angry and annoyed at this constant power imbalance— Neurocam were always in control and there was nothing we could do about it.

During this unbearable waiting period I kept myself occupied with many hours on the Internet attempting to join together the many dots of random information pertaining to a possible explanation of what Neurocam actually was. With a clear image in mind of a bunch of people all wearing identical white kabuki masks and playing chess in a local bar, I came across an interesting reference to a phenomenon called Flash Mobs. Flash Mobs were created in New York during 2003 by Bill Wasik, and are described by him as “a public gathering of complete strangers, organized via the Internet or mobile phone, which performs a pointless act and then disperses again."

The idea had spread rapidly throughout the US and then internationally to many major cities around the world. Examples of recorded “Flash Mob” events include shopping for a ‘love rug’ for a fictitious commune, silent discos where participants gather and dance while listening to music on headphones, pillow fights, synchronised swimming in public fountains, gathering in hotel lobbies and cheering onlookers. I read of a hilarious account of a Flash Mob in Melbourne CBD, where hundreds of people had appeared out of nowhere and started a mock shoot-out wielding bananas, before disappearing minutes later into the crowds.
While the actions played out by the crowds in Wasik’s Flash Mobs didn’t appear to have any obvious socio-political agenda, Nick Tapper in an article for The New Critic points out that:

Seeing how all culture in New York was demonstrably commingled with scenesterism, the appeal of concerts and plays and readings and gallery shows deriving less from the work itself than from the social opportunities the work might engender, it should theoretically be possible to create an art project consisting of pure scene—meaning the scene would be the entire point of the work, and indeed would itself constitute the work.

So Wasik appeared to be facilitating a process where a form of social interaction created unique and temporary works of art where the people themselves become the show, and in a sense, create something which is entirely experiential. I wasn’t convinced that Wasik was creating art, as the idea seemed more aligned with experiments in social networking than the construction of artworks involving a radical new approach to audience participation. Also, Wasik did not claim at any point to be an artist and often said in interviews that he created Flash Mobs because he thought they were funny. It was possible however that the very existence of Flash Mobs could be challenging art’s boundaries in light of what people were doing with live art and conceptual art, where the work focuses on a performance, action or event rather than a tangible permanent outcome.

All the same, the similarities to some of Neurocam’s recent activities couldn’t be ignored. Neurocam was indeed similarly organising groups of people to participate in public acts for no obvious reason other than curiosity or a need to be part of something. The difference was that Neurocam’s public participatory acts were not random or pointless to those involved; they were part of a narrative trajectory. It could be said however that these acts were completely random and pointless to an outside audience. I thought of what the general public would have made of the treasure hunt at Bolte Bridge and the masked chess tournament at Prudence. I also wondered if Neurocam’s overall narrative trajectory, if there was one, could be just as random or pointless as the Wasik’s one-liners. This was a strangely uncomfortable thought. What if I had wasted considerable amounts of my time on something completely pointless?

I questioned what would make people want to participate in Flash Mobs. In an (online) interview with Stay Free magazine, Wasik says that:

People have been spending a lot of time in virtual communities since the Internet took off, and I think people liked the flash mobs because they had an Internet component, yet allowed you to see this virtual community made literal and physical.

This was an interesting idea as it pretty much mirrored what was happening with my Neurocam experience on a smaller scale. I now had online friends who were loosely part of what Wasik was calling a ‘virtual community’. We were like a club with one thing in common—Neurocam participation. The group assignments were hugely appealing because we also got to see the virtual world of Neurocam played out in the physical world. The only thing missing however, were some of the virtual players in our community such as Mr Hastings and Ms Fischer. But it was early days and there was no telling what might be in store if I was promoted.
A word that had been cropping up often in my research into the idea of Flash Mobs and virtual communities was ‘meme’. According to Wikipedia:

A meme consists of any idea or behavior that can pass from one person to another by learning or imitation. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, gestures, practices, fashions, habits, songs, and dances. Memes propagate themselves and can move through the cultural sociosphere in a manner similar to the contagious behavior of a virus.

Apparently Richard Dawkins invented the word ‘meme’ in his book The Selfish Gene (1976) to describe how one might extend evolutionary principles to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Wasik’s Flash Mobs were the perfect example of a ‘meme’ in the way they started off purely as an idea and then spread rapidly through the Internet, like a virus. Wasik says in another interview that:

... the whole meme-making thing is weird. I have friends who basically make memes for a living--for art projects that involve spreading ideas through the Internet. But things spread for reasons that are unknown to all of us.

I found the idea of a new breed of artists spreading ideas across the Internet absolutely fascinating. It made sense that the web was radically changing the way information was accessed and propagated, but it was amazing to think that people, even artists, were specialising in this area. Certainly Flash Mobs had countless forums and chat rooms all over the web, which were propagating the idea like a virus. I wondered what would happen to Neurocam if the veil of secrecy were removed and people all over the World started blogging about their Neurocam experiences. If this happened I would certainly be excited about the opportunity to share my findings with the Neurocam community and would strive towards being the first person to get to the bottom of the mystery. Outside of the Internet it was entirely possible that Neurocam had already become a meme; it was ostensibly a kind of theory, set of ideas or way of thinking that was spreading across the cultural landscape of our society. I wondered how many thousands of people all around the world might be involved and how many Neurocam-related emails were pinging back and fourth through cyberspace. If we, the participants, were making Neurocam what it is, then it was likely that there were considerably more of us than we imagined.

Several days later I finally received my much anticipated email from Mr Hastings. To my dismay, his message did not shed any light whatsoever as to whether or not I was to be promoted. This was extremely frustrating after waiting so long to hear back from them. Hastings merely ordered that I show up at Darling Gardens in Clifton Hill the following night. I was to wait by a rotunda at precisely 11pm, which I thought was rather late for me on a weeknight and altogether somewhat ominous. Although it was good news that I had heard from Neurocam, I was somewhat taken aback by this latest development. Meeting persons unknown in a park in the middle of the night was significantly increasing my level of commitment and trust to worrying proportions. I felt strangely manipulated by Neurocam—they had put me in a position where I had become so obsessed and so worried about being cut off that I would do practically anything they asked of me. Still, I guessed that if I wanted to get the most out of whatever kind of experience this was, I would simply have to continue to follow orders. Part of me also wanted to expose them once and for all, and I knew that the only chance I had of doing this was to continue my involvement.

That night I came across a reference to a project that had happened before Flash Mobs became popular, which was dealing with similar themes in a far more sophisticated way. In 2001 Tim Etchells—in collaboration with the Huddersfield Media Centre in the UK—had developed a project called Surrender Control where anonymous SMS messages instructed participants to engage in bizarre behaviour. Participants were recruited into the project via a catchy marketing campaign using flyers in bars and magazine ads which asked, “Do you want to surrender control?” and listed a phone number. Those who responded with a text message stating “yes” were then inducted into the project and sent a series of SMS messages beginning with innocuous questions such as, “What did you do last night?” and escalating to demanding participation in physical actions like knocking things over, breaking things and touching two people at the same time. At the conclusion of a participant’s involvement they were given a message asking them to forget everything they had experienced.
In an online article discussing Surrender Control, BBC Go Digital’s Jon Wurtzel says that:

With this project, The Media Centre aims to disrupt the patterns and routines of urban behavior with the random and unexpected. If you are on a train, following the instruction to touch two people at the same time will have a different implication than if you're in a business meeting. Surrender Control provides an excuse to escape routine, to behave differently.

This struck me as being uncannily similar to Neurocam in terms of the project’s overall objectives. I thought about some of the unusual ways I had been behaving over the past few months—retrieving objects from safes and train station lockers, searching for missing items with a group of total strangers, stalking random members of the public and playing masked chess. These unusual activities had certainly provided an excuse to escape routine and behave differently, and receiving my instructions via email was not dissimilar to Etchells’ SMS delivery. Neurocam was indeed also disrupting patterns and routines of urban behaviour with the random and unexpected, but to what end? The Media Centre seemed to view this process as an end result in itself, much like Wasik’s Flash Mobs, but was Neurocam simply another clever one- liner? Surrender Control was probably the most similar type of project to Neurocam that I had come across so far, as Etchells had constructed an actual dialogue with his participants in which a kind of relationship of trust was formed. Wasik was simply ordering people to carry out single, unrelated acts, but Etchells was starting off with questions, gradually upping the anti and daring participants to go further and further away from their comfort zones. Surrender Control also had the additional impact of participants working individually rather than in the safety of a group situation. The completely anonymous nature of Etchells’ project was something that I had only ever seen with Neurocam.

So, was Neurocam just an elaborate media artsy project? Although it was entirely likely that an organisation like The Media Centre in the UK could be running Neurocam, part of me wanted to believe that there was infinitely more to it. Besides, after looking into the workings of media arts organisations, I really didn’t think that they would have the extensive funding available to run such large-scale international projects, especially with no source of generated revenue or even promotional opportunities. Once again I found myself facing the usual question—if Neurocam wasn’t a media arts project, then what was it? My mind wandered off into some of the more extreme possibilities such as a government conspiracy to gather information and control its citizens, or a bizarre psychology experiment funded by some excessively wealthy drug company. It seemed that almost anything was possible at this stage.

The following day at work I was nervous and distracted. I couldn’t stop thinking about my strange appointment that night and what it might entail. I had a strong feeling that something was about to happen which would significantly impact on my Neurocam involvement. To while away the dragging hours I surreptitiously browsed the Internet in my seemingly never-ending quest for answers. While looking further into the idea of audience participation within some of the new kinds of interactive projects I had been looking at, I came across an interesting interview with media arts curator Rudolf Frieling talking about a 2005 show at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art entitled The Art of Participation. The show was essentially a showcasing of participatory artworks from the 1950s until today featuring many famous artists from the art historical archives. Frieling, in an attempt to shed light on some of the more obscure works in the show, says that:

We know what it means to participate in politics or school, and sometimes know what it means to participate in a work of art if we get clear instructions. However there are some projects where it is unclear what exactly is asked of you, or you can only find out by actually doing something. The work requires your input and your act of contribution.

Participating in works where one can only find out about the nature of engagement by actually doing something was an idea that resonated strongly for me in light of recent events. Again I came back to the idea that Neurocam might be a project positioned more in the realms of contemporary art than the more general genre of media arts. While Frieling was talking about works such as Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures  where participants have to interact with everyday objects to create impromptu sculptures with their bodies, the essence of this idea seemed to be a key to understanding my Neurocam experience. 

Assuming that Neurocam was an interactive artwork, it was true that the terms of engagement were unclear in spite of receiving what seemed on the surface a clear set of instructions. It followed that the nature of my experience was to be determined by me actually completing the tasks I was set. And also, Neurocam, much like Wurm’s sculptures, required the input and contribution of participants to become a complete work. It now seemed obvious to me—Neurocam needed us operatives to exist. Considering this, I felt better about what I was about to do that evening. I was still however a little confused about the idea of a work that, unlike all other examples I had seen, did not seem to have a fixed point of conclusion or resolution. When was Neurocam complete?

Freiling went on to discuss the idea of “open works of art” which went some way towards answering my questions about the open-ended nature of Neurocam. He states that:

The idea of “the open work of art” goes back to a 1962 book by Umberto Eco, in which he reflects on developments within contemporary art and music where the results of the artwork were not predefined, but rather could change over time, or change by interpretation. He said, in the whole history of art, the act of looking is a kind of interpretation; it’s always different and each one of us sees art in a different way.

Saying that each of us sees (or interprets) art in different ways was somewhat obvious, but the idea of a work with no predefined outcomes that could change over time was very interesting. Did Neurocam really not have a fixed point of conclusion? Events thus far suggested that our Neurocam experiences had been meticulously scripted by Neurocam’s puppet masters, although there was obviously considerable room for our interpretation within this process. In terms of my own interpretation of Neurocam as a possible artwork, my ideas had most definitely changed over time as I had encountered new things. So far I had been playing by Neurocam’s rules as they had strongly urged, with the threat of dismissal, but I wondered how things would have played out if I had not done so. Would they have simply thrown me out? Even if I had been dismissed from their organisation, that would have constituted an ending of sorts, a fixed point of conclusion to the experience of the work. This reminded me again of Strangers and Intimacy, and how each person who attended their live artwork would have gone home with a different story to tell.

It occurred to me that Neurocam may not have expected us to blindly play along with everything they asked of us; that they might be frantically scurrying around behind the scenes trying to come up with new material for us every week. I had no idea who was at the controls, how many of them there were, or what kind of resources they had at their disposal. I had always assumed that they had been working on a large scale and unlimited timeline, but I had no real evidence to base this on. The latest development within the narrative certainly suggested that things might be reaching their conclusion for a lot of participants. I hoped I wasn’t one of them and I hoped that the people behind Neurocam weren’t getting to the end of whatever it was they had been working on. I had become somehow emotionally invested in whatever it was they were creating and I didn’t want it to end.

On the whole I found the interview with Frieling rather thought provoking, but I had to remind myself that however radical some of the ideas he discussed were, he was still operating well within the institutional confines of an art museum:

In this exhibition, we’re interested in ways people can contribute to a work not only by looking—but also by interacting, participating in a group dynamic, or contributing to an artwork. We go, in other words, beyond the viewer.

I could understand what he was getting at with the idea of participatory group dynamics shaping the outcomes of a work, but I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by the (rather pretentious) statement about going “beyond the viewer”. Obviously an approach to experiencing art that involved hands-on participation took the audience beyond the usual (passive) relationship with an art object, but to what end? Were they temporarily losing themselves in the work? The ‘viewer’ still knew that they were in an art context and that they were expected to interact with the work in some way. Even the title of the show Frieling was talking about made this rather obvious. I considered many of the art exhibitions I had seen where the audience always assumed that interaction was not an option. The somewhat precious nature of art in galleries or art museums always made me resist my instincts to experience what a material felt like, or play around with the arrangement of exhibited objects. What if some of these artists had been open to an interactive experience with their work, but had simply not advertised the fact? With art projects like Maling’s Project George and Strangers and Intimacy, interaction was not so much a choice, rather something that the audience was forced to confront. The only way to not interact in these situations would have been to leave the premises, but I guess even that would have resulted in an experience of sorts.

One of the works in The Art of Participation that I found conceptually interesting was a piece called Automatic for the People, staged by New York artist duo MTAA. MTAA staged a performance that was entirely designed by the audience through a ballot process where people voted on each of 10 details making up the work—the location, props, duration etc. Frieling proposed that this work was significant within the theme of the show because it, “...deliberately blurs the roles of artist and audience, creator and viewer.“

This was a new take on interactive performance works in which the audience had (some) creative control over the outcomes of the actual work. Here, the work was still shaped by the audience, but they were also controlling the situation. What if I were to take this approach with Neurocam and start manipulating events myself? Was this even possible?

Automatic for the People reminded me of a work I had read about recently entitled Chris Barr is available on Thursday, where American media studies student Chris Barr launched a project during 2005 in which ideas for events, actions and situations were submitted by the public to be carried out by Barr himself every Thursday for two months. He then documented these events and posted them on the project website. Among the hundreds of tasks he carried out over this period, some examples were:

Visiting someone who lived in a nursing home who wanted someone to talk to.
Finding poems by female poets, photocopying them and posting them in male restrooms.
Taking a walk wearing two different shoes.
Composing a letter to the FBI, requesting his FBI file.

Although this was not framed as an art project, what struck me about Barr’s experiment was the way in which full creative license was given over to the general public, essentially allowing them to put him in any situation they chose. There appeared to be no obvious links between Barr’s assigned tasks, although they seemed to be vaguely associated with disrupting social norms. Unlike MTAA’s work where the audience were limited to a set number of options on which to vote, Barr’s work opened up the possibility of random members of the public giving him ‘assignments’, which would potentially challenge him in all kinds of ways. I found it fascinating to think that his audience could place him in situations that they themselves could conceive of but (presumably) never actually go through with. 

It made me think of the assignments Neurocam was giving us and who was actually writing them. Barr’s work seemed somehow like the inverse of projects like Neurocam or Miranda July’s Learning to Love You More in that it involved assignments being created by the audience and given to the artist, rather than vice versa. Interestingly, the work was still just as dependent on audience participation and would not have survived without it. It brought to mind the fundamental question I was grappling with at present in relation to this type of art practice—who is ultimately responsible for the creation of the work, the artist(s) or the audience? Frieling seemed to be correct in his premise that these kinds of works were indeed blurring the roles between artist and audience, creator and viewer, creating a re-working of these distinctions.

After several hours of immersing myself in researching interactive art projects when I should have been working, I felt more confused than ever about what was happening in the art world these days, what could be considered art, and the ever-changing role of the audience. I set off home in need of a glass of wine and some mindless television viewing before my nefarious late-night rendezvous with the cam.

Later that evening I arrived at the dimly lit Darling Gardens wielding a takeaway coffee and made my way to the small rotunda in the centre of the area. As I grew closer I noticed a man. He was in his early-thirties and looked as if he was waiting for someone. I introduced myself and discovered that he was also a Neurocam operative waiting for something to happen. He seemed just as nervous as I was, and perhaps because of this, willing to talk about his Neurocam involvement. His operative name was “Tript” and he had been with Neurocam for about a year and had completed several assignments, the latest being the masked chess tournament at Prudence. We speculated about what the night may have had in store for us and assessed the potential risk we were taking. I told him about my theory that Neurocam was some new kind of narrative-based experimental art project and he seemed to disagree with this idea, saying that he thought Neurocam was most likely some kind of television initiative like an urban version of Survivor, and that we would most likely end up on some reality TV show. I asked him if this was what was motivating him and he said “No”, it was simply “ hell of a ride and he wasn’t ready to get off yet”. We both agreed that an organisation with billboards in major cities around the world was not likely to represent anything harmful or untoward, but I sensed that during that moment in time neither of us were entirely convinced.

As if precisely on cue, our conversation was interrupted by the arrival of two cars outside the park. Six black-clad figures emerged wearing black kabuki masks and began making their way towards us. “Tript” and I looked at each other, he whispered urgently, “Should we run?” Rooted to the spot with indecision, we were soon surrounded by the black figures, who seemed to be wearing some kind of strange insignia on the foreheads of their masks. One of them, who may have been the leader, greeted us curtly and told us that we were going on a trip to a secret location and that we would have to agree to being blindfolded before undertaking this journey. He said that we could choose not to go, but if we did, our Neurocam involvement would be over and we would never hear from them again.

I could simply walk away and it would all be over, or I could take a massive leap of faith and let myself be swept up in whatever was about to happen. I felt as if my entire Neurocam experience had been leading up to this moment and it was impossible to walk away, in spite of being absolutely terrified. The ‘leader’ told us that we didn’t have all night and asked if we were coming. I made eye contact with “Tript” and he nodded and I nodded back. The cliché ‘safety in numbers’ echoed somewhere in the recesses of my consciousness. The masked figures produced two large paper shopping bags and placed them roughly over our heads, blocking out the night. As we were led to the waiting vehicles, I kept thinking of “Ivan’s Dogs” while I clutched my still scalding hot coffee.

Inside whatever car I was led into, strange music started up on the stereo as the driver turned on the ignition. It was some kind of meditation mantra mixed with techno beats. It was hypnotic. None of the other people in the car said a word as we sped through the streets to our mysterious destination. I found it quite surreal that I was essentially being abducted in the middle of the night by a bunch of scary people in black masks and was at this moment being driven around with a bag over my head. I wondered why other motorists weren’t calling the police and how they could get away with this sort of thing.

After what seemed like about half an hour of driving we pulled over and I was led out of the car and put into another car. The new car was a bigger vehicle, a 4WD diesel or something, and they had some kind of industrial soundscape playing on the stereo that produced the visceral equivalent of fingers raking down a blackboard. The roads we were travelling on seemed to become rougher and I spilled hot coffee onto my lap, which, had I not been distracted by the unfolding of my own abduction, would have probably been quite painful. After about another half hour of numerous twists and turns the car finally pulled over and I was led, still clutching my takeaway coffee, into the night.

I had absolutely no idea where we might be, but noticed that it was very quiet. No traffic or pedestrians. I was then led up some steps, through a door into what seemed like a very large and musty-smelling space, and up two flights of stairs. Progress up the stairs was extremely slow and I managed to spill even more of my now cold coffee all over myself. I could hear “Tript” fumbling his way up each step ahead of me. Eventually our guides became frustrated with our laborious progress and began to guide each foot to the next step for us. This sped things up considerably and we soon reached the top of the stairs and were led through a series of echoing corridors into what sounded like a large cavernous space. Eerie music could be heard from an adjoining room as we were made to stand facing what seemed to be a bright light. A deep muffled voice in front of us instructed us to remove our bags.

Blinking to adjust to the light I could make out a desk in front of us with a very bright desk lamp shining directly into our eyes. A tall heavy-set figure emerged from behind the light and stood, silhouetted, in front of us. He appeared to be wearing a stocking over his head with bandages from nose to chin and a small slit cut where his mouth would be. Protruding from this slit was a lit cigarette, the effect of which was more than a little sinister. In his peculiar deep muffled voice with a slight English accent he greeted us and introduced himself as Charles Hastings, Director of Operations. At this point I almost dropped my coffee, as after all this time Hastings had become a kind of legend, and to see him in person was really quite overwhelming.

Hastings apologised for the unorthodox means by which we had been brought to him and told us that it was a necessary precaution. He then congratulated us on both being selected for promotion and pointed out that we must now undergo some formalities in order to be officially inducted into our new roles. The first of these formalities was to be a short message via live web link from Neurocam’s Director, Ms Bridget Fischer. My heart leapt in my chest, after all these months of mystery, things were happening so fast. Some of the masked figures opened a sleek-looking laptop on the desk and Hastings motioned for us to come closer so we could clearly see the screen. The desk light was then switched off so all we could see was a Neurocam logo filling the screen. The logo dissolved into a video window in which an Afro-American woman in her mid-forties wearing a dark grey suit and white kabuki mask was regarding us. Her mask bore the same strange insignia, a bit like a squid, that the others all had. She appeared to be sitting at a desk in a high-rise office with a spectacular night view of some extremely large city behind her.

Ms Fischer greeted us in a thick Midwestern American accent and also congratulated us on being promoted, something she mentioned happened to less than one percent of all entry-level operatives around the world. She then gave a brief speech about the need for total commitment to the project as well as complete confidentiality. She said that before we could officially begin our work as ‘inducted operatives’, we would have to sign an official contract.

The lights flicked back on and Hastings’ team produced hefty contracts and pens for us and we were told that we had to initial each page and sign on the last page. The contents of the contracts were steeped in dense corporate jargon almost impossible to decipher. I was so taken aback by the situation that I found it very difficult to read the very small print on the sixty or so pages. I dutifully initialled each page and signed on the dotted line, as did “Tript”. All the while Ms Fischer was watching us from her high-rise office via the Internet. When we had finished and Hastings had collected our contracts, Ms Fischer congratulated us again and told us that she looked forward to working with us. She signed off and the screen blinked back to the Neurocam logo.

Hastings then gave us a convoluted speech about the important work that was being undertaken by Neurocam and how it was only possible with people like us on board. I had no idea what he was talking about and was more confused than ever. After his speech he produced two neatly wrapped packages the size of a shoebox from the desk and told us that we were not to open them until we were in total privacy. He said that the contents of the packages were of the utmost importance and would show us the way to proceed. At this point he asked us if we had any questions and, completely intimidated, we both shook our heads dumbly and muttered “No”. Hastings then bid us “Farewell and Godspeed!” then strode briskly out of the room.
Our bags were placed back on our heads and we were led out of the building, ushered back into the cars and driven back to where we had been picked up what seemed like a lifetime ago. Our Neurocam escorts instructed that we not remove the bags until at least a minute after they had departed, which I suspected was to make sure we didn’t see their licence plates.

Once they had gone, “Tript” and I removed the bags and stared at each other in amazement. “Tript” was first to speak and said that that had undoubtedly been one of the most fucked up nights of his life. I had to agree. I noticed that by now almost all of my coffee was on my trousers and not in its cup and wondered why I been holding it all this time. We had a long conversation about what the night’s events had meant and both decided that we were just as clueless as before and had no idea of what we had just signed up for. We were both clearly impressed by the idea that Ms Fischer, the leader, was right now sitting in some penthouse office in LA or somewhere getting on with her Neurocam business. If Neurocam was some kind of elaborate interactive art project, the scale and art direction of it had just exceeded my wildest expectations. The game had been taken to yet another level and in spite of having just been through a weird and scary encounter, I was still willing to be a player.

When I got home that night in the early hours of the morning I unwrapped the parcel Hastings had given me. It contained a CD with a Neurocam logo on it, a brand new iPhone which was switched on and ready to go, and a very expensive looking black Japanese kabuki mask with a red insignia of a squid placed on the forehead between the eyes. Surrounding the stylised squid design was text, which spelled “Nautonier”. I knew that this was French for ‘navigator’, but I had no idea what it had to do with Neurocam. As for the mobile phone, I could only assume that Neurocam would no longer be using email to contact me.

The next day I called in sick at work, as I was still slightly traumatised from the bizarre developments of the previous evening. With time to reflect on what had happened I began to realise that Neurocam still wasn’t quite fitting the mould of anything remotely similar to what I had uncovered in my research. Sure, it had similarities to “Ivan’s Dogs”, “Project George”, “Strangers and Intimacy”, “Snowdancing”, “Learning to Love You More”, “The Vorticist”, “Surrender Control”, “I Like Frank”, “Flash Mobs” and the bizarre kidnapping business in New York—but it just wasn’t the same as any of them. It clearly didn’t label itself as any kind of art project, couldn’t be played as an ARG and had no transparency whatsoever in terms of who was running the show and for what reason.

Assuming that Neurocam was something to do with an art project involving a highly organised team of actors, props and locations, there had to be some kind of precedent out there that would shed some light of why someone would go to so much trouble and for what reason. I decided to breach my confidentiality agreement and seek some outside help. I had to discuss this with an expert in the field, NZ artist Jason Maling aka “The Vorticist”.

Fortunately I was able to see Maling that very afternoon and spent over an hour telling him about my bizarre adventures with Neurocam and my attempts to figure out what it was all about. He listened intently and asked me several questions. We discussed Neurocam for several hours and he seemed to think that it was possibly some kind of art/theatre hybrid project that was seeking to engage an audience outside of the constraints and labels of the art world. He mentioned another project by the UK performance artists collective Blast Theory called Kidnap. During 1998 Blast Theory had launched a lottery in which the winners had the chance to be kidnapped. Ten finalists around England and Wales were chosen at random and put under surveillance. Two winners were then snatched in broad daylight and taken to a secret location where they were held for 48 hours. The whole process was broadcast live onto the Internet. Online visitors were able to control the video camera inside the ‘cell’ and communicate live with the kidnappers.

Maling suggested that if Blast Theory were kidnapping people in the name of art back in 1998, it was not so unusual that I had been abducted the previous evening. He pointed out that I had willingly signed up for my experience as had Blast Theory’s participants. When I mentioned that I hadn’t known exactly what would happen to me, he said that Blast Theory’s participants hadn’t either; their abductions had taken place at times and locations that had taken them completely by surprise. They had however, signed up for a ‘kidnapping’, so they at least knew that was something that might happen to them.

Maling confessed that he was confused about Neurocam’s total lack of media presence as they were obviously a large and well-funded organisation that must have had a history of similar work. He suggested that although the word ‘Neurocam’ turned up nothing on the Internet, perhaps this was simply the label of the latest project from a group who could be operating under another name. I thought of the name Nautonier on the insignia of my new mask and made a mental note to google it. Conversation then turned to the possibilities of art projects not labeled as art and how the audience would only have a ‘pure’ experience if they thought that the situation was ‘real’. He seemed genuinely excited by this idea and said that just because it may not have been done before did not mean that Neurocam weren’t the pioneers in the field. As we parted he told me to also check out a work by Italian artists Bosetti and Cuocolo called Private Eye as well as attending a performance project that was happening in Melbourne at present called Collapse. He wished me luck in my Neurocam journeys and told me to keep him posted. As I was walking out the door he called out to me that if Neurocam wasn’t an art project involving elements of theatre, then there was one other possibility that didn’t bear thinking about—it was real.

On the way home Malings’ parting words plagued me. What if it was real? What if Charles Hastings really was Charles Hastings and Bridget Fischer really was the Chief Executive Officer of Neurocam International sitting in her high-rise office in the US? The thought blew my mind. I remembered the CD that they had given me and how, frustratingly, the CD drive on my computer wasn’t working at the moment. Perhaps the contents of the CD were the key.

At home I looked up the kidnap project and found an interesting article in The Independent where Blast Theory’s Director Matt Adams was quoted as saying:

They (the participants) also love the idea of entering the unknown - that's so rare in our lives. Everyone who's registered will now look at life through slightly different eyes.

This very much reminded me of how Neurocam had created a similar shift in my own perceptions, especially now that I had absolutely no idea what to expect. In another article in the Sunday Times, journalist James Armstrong had undergone his own art kidnapping experience with Blast Theory and reported that:

My view of the performance was clouded by the terror, frustration, boredom and fury that dominated my 24 hours in captivity. Then again, maybe that was the point of it all. Certainly, no other performance I have ever seen has brought about such intense extremes of emotion.

This certainly resonated with my experiences the previous evening; I really hadn’t ever felt such a range of strong emotions as a response to any form of art or entertainment before. Come to think of it, I probably hadn’t experienced such strong feelings in my entire life generally.

I had a look at the work Private Eye as Maling had mentioned and could see why he had suggested it. At the Melbourne International Arts Festival during 2005 Italian artists Renato Cuocolo and Roberta Bosetti had set up an elaborate performance piece beginning with Cuocolo hiring a private investigator to secretly tail his wife Bosetti. The work then played out over three acts, to consecutive audiences of one. In the first act Cuocolo invites the spectator into the lobby of the Grand Hyatt to view the videos and photographs of Bosetti created by the private investigator. In the second act the spectator is invited into a hotel room occupied only by Bosetti, whose seductive performance is calculatingly designed to elicit a secret from the spectator. Once this confession has been extracted a knock comes at the door and Bosetti ushers the spectator to a hiding place behind a false wall, where concealed peep holes allow the spectator to witness the same scene played out with the next member of the audience. On a promotional website for the project, Cuocolo and Bosetti write that:

It is as if the real and the imaginary were running after each other, as if each were reflected in each other, around a point of indiscernibility. Indiscernibility implies that we no longer know what is real or imaginary, not because they are confused, but because we do not have to know and there is no longer even a place from which to ask.

This was a fantastic example of how the dynamics of theatre, when placed in an art context, could fabricate a construct of reality for individual participants. I imagined what it must have been like being directly engaged by Bosetti to share an intimate moment, only to realise that another person had been secretly watching. There was something I found slightly perverse about this idea, as participants were deliberately manipulated by trained actors/performers into tacitly becoming part of an actual scene, which was witnessed by another audience. But wasn’t I being manipulated in the same way? In this case the audience was also an integral part of the creation of the work, but like with Neurocam, the situation was not interactive in the sense that participants could directly control the outcomes of the situation. I felt that this brought to mind an important distinction to be made between interactive works where the audience shaped the work, and interactive works where the work shaped the perceptions of the audience. I liked Cuocolo and Bosetti’s comment about not being able to distinguish between what is real or imaginary because there is no context from which to even make an assessment. I thought that this could be the ultimate aim of such works—to create a reality in which traditional notions of fact or fiction are reversed. I guess this could be seen as an alternate reality of sorts, something I had come across in the game world, but was now seeing in the art world. Certainly it was an idea that overturned traditional notions of art.

The hotel room scene with Bosetti made me think about the previous evening’s encounter with Hastings and crew. Had the entire scene been acted out entirely for the benefit of operative “Tript” and myself, or were there other layers involved? It was quite possible that other participants could have been present or that the entire thing was being filmed and broadcast on the Internet or some kind of live-feed TV to another audience. I hoped this was not the case, as this would have made me feel truly exploited. I also wondered at the extent to which we had been manipulated into accepting the reality they had presented us with. What if we had disobeyed instructions and removed our blindfolds or tried to pull off Hastings’ mask? What if we had asked him directly what Neurocam was all about? Had they known that we would be so utterly submissive?

The rest of the week passed uneventfully and my Neurocam phone did not ring. It was incredibly surreal to have a brand new iPhone that was fully paid up by parties unknown for reasons that were entirely unclear. I had looked in the phone’s directory and it contained no contacts and had not made any calls. I carried it with me at all times along with my usual phone in the hope that something would happen.

That weekend I attended the performance event Collapse that Maling had told me about. An artist’s collective called Red Cabbage who consisted of several artists, performers, actors and musicians had created Collapse. As instructed I made my way to a small jetty underneath the Westgate Bridge where 10 or so other punters were milling about. We were met by a large pleasure boat, invited on board and given glasses of champagne by young men and women wearing white plastic overalls. The boat took us out to sea where the skipper killed the engine and let us drift for some time. A strange noise like a foghorn issued from the bowels of the craft while we were drifting. The engine started and we changed direction and headed for what looked like an abandoned industrial area along from the Williamstown Marina. As we put in I noticed a number of people dressed in filthy rags who looked like concentration camp victims toiling away next to the wharf lugging large sacks full of something out of the ocean and up the beach. Over the next hour we were subtly led by more of these concentration camp-like people, all wearing different colored rags, through a series of massive warehouses and old factories which were all inhabited by people going about their business and seemingly oblivious to us guests. The inhabitants of this post-apocalyptic state seemed to have their own complex culture and hierarchy, which was discernable through their behavior with some of them ordering others about and pushing and shoving them, while others would command respect in a more detached way. The scene was impressively set up in terms of art direction with lighting, props and music all integrating seamlessly with what looked like a long since abandoned factory.

On the way home from the performance I thought about how similar to a play it had been. The only real difference was that the audience moved through the space from scene to scene which all unfolded in real time. At one point I had attempted to stray from the rest of the audience members and explore another part of the ‘set’ and been briskly grabbed by the arm by one of the ‘guides’ and shoved back to where I should have been. I thought that Red Cabbage had been very successful in constructing a seamless reality in which the audience were able to experience being ‘cultural tourists’ in a situation where the rules, rituals and behavior was altogether foreign. I did find myself disappointed by the lack of interaction however—I had wanted something to happen, something that would have impacted more actively on the audience. While it was interesting to play the voyeur for a while, I felt that Red Cabbage could have upped the stakes and made us a more integral part of the reality we were (passively) witnessing. Even something as simple as being enlisted to help lug heavy sacks out of the ocean would have been interesting. As I was now discovering, art no longer had to be a passive proposition; lattes could be spilled and people could get their feet wet. As far as I could tell these kinds of experiences could have two parts to them—art direction/choreography and acting/direct interaction with the audience. Traditional theatre used mostly a passive combination of art direction, choreography and acting, whereas twentieth century Avant-Garde Theater sought to create a more active relationship with the audience, but still within the confines of the theatre environment. Newly emerging art projects were adding the additional element of actors/performers directly engaging with an audience during events or situations, which were clearly not intended as theatre. Neurocam was going one step further and doing all of this without warning the audience in any way what they were getting themselves into, how long it would last, or how pervasive it would be.

That night I pulled apart my computer and installed the new CD drive I had purchased. I felt a rush of excitement as I inserted the glossy disc Neurocam had given me. It was an auto-run application that filled my entire screen. I watched the slick presentation with utter amazement. Neurocam wanted me to assist them processing applications from people wanting to join the organisation and recruit those who were deemed suitable. They also wanted me to set what they called ‘entry-level’ assignments for these people. The assignments were the exact same ones that I had completed over the last year. It quickly dawned on me that most of my Neurocam experience so far may well have been dictated by some other operative somewhere who had received this very same promotion a year ago. While I liked the sense of empowerment that went with helping Neurocam perpetuate their project by setting up experiences for other people, I was disappointed that they had cleverly set up the situation so I was still no closer to finding out who they were and what they were doing. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

05 Career Advancement Opportunity

After the Bolte Bridge assignment I went about my banal day-to-day activities in a kind of trance. I felt as if I was living parallel lives—one as a boring call centre worker attempting to sell vacuum cleaners over the phone, and the other as a secret agent for a nefarious organisation of unknown origins. It was somehow comforting to know that there were other people in Melbourne probably leading a similar kind of existence. I thought about some of the people I had met on the assignment and recalled that the ones who had talked about what they did for a living had ordinary, unremarkable jobs like myself.

I had struck up friendships with a handful of the operatives I had met via email and although they were still largely reluctant to discuss Neurocam, I sensed that this might change if I persisted. Occasionally we would joke about our ‘secret lives’ and referred to ‘that which we can not speak about’. I had never really had ‘online friends’ before, but this seemed like a natural way to engage with people I had met through such peculiar circumstances. It turned out that we all had a lot in common and shared very similar interests and I wondered if this was what had drawn us all to Neurocam in the first place. I tried to isolate a particular quality that my new friends shared, but could only narrow it down to a similar interest in online research into anything new and unusual going on in the world. At a stretch it could be said that we were all people who engaged with the world of ideas in a more intellectual way than your average person. Or were we simply spending too much time online and not engaging in enough real-world social interaction? 

Strangely, it occurred to me that all of us would rather spend our evenings online than watching TV, which I guess was something else differentiating us from the general public. It occurred to me that the people who had the most information on the demographics of a Neurocam Operative were probably those behind the curtain.

I thought more about the idea of Neurocam possibly being some kind of experimental performance art project and did some research to find out what was going on within this genre in the art world these days. I started off by looking at the definition of performance art to see if it was the right fit. In an attempt to define this rather elusive genre, arts writer Kyle Chayka writes that:

If we were to assign performance art a single defining characteristic, it would probably be the fact that a piece of performance art must be centered on an action carried out or orchestrated by an artist, a time-based rather than permanent artistic gesture that has a beginning and an end. Documentation of the performance might live on forever, from photos and artifacts to full video documentation, but the performance itself is ephemeral. If you were lucky enough to be in the audience, then what you witnessed was the true work of performance art.

So was Neurocam an ephemeral set of actions carried out by an artist? It was possible, but after further reading it seemed that performance art itself was bound by certain constraints such as necessitating the presence of an actual ‘performer’ as well as the elements of space, time and the relationship of the performer to the audience. In this sense the term performance art appeared to adequately describe art activities such as the curious ‘tours’ run by Ivan’s Dogs, but I wasn’t so sure about events where the artists were neither present, nor even acknowledged. After extensive digging, I could not find any examples of performances where the artists were not present during the actual events.

Another definition I had come across that seemed more apt was ‘happening’, where “a performance, event or situation could be considered art”. Apparently happenings can “take place anywhere, are often multi-disciplinary, usually lack a narrative and frequently seek to involve the audience in some way.” Happenings were also known to leave considerable room for improvisation. This was more like it.

So was Neurocam an art happening? Upon further research I disappointingly discovered that the term happening was rather antiquated within the context of contemporary art practice, and mainly referred to a bunch of artists in the 60s getting together and painting while others played music or old records and danced. I imagined that there was probably a fair amount of LSD involved as well...

Another interesting term I came across was ‘conceptual art’, which American artist Sol LeWitt defines with the following statement:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.

LeWitt is essentially describing a type of art practice where the concepts or ideas informing the work seem to take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns. I couldn’t begin to imagine what concepts or ideas the creators of Neurocam might be grappling with if they were trying to create a work of conceptual art. Were they making some kind of statement about how far people were willing to go to belong to something? Were they dealing with anti- establishment themes? As far as traditional aesthetic and material concerns went, the attention to detail I had experienced with Neurocam seemed every bit as meticulous as a quality theatre production, although arguably anything but traditional. It was very strange to think of Neurocam as a ‘work’, especially a work having been created by an artist or a group of artists. This made me think of what would make Neurocam art and brought to mind a quote I had come across by Tony Godfrey, author of "Conceptual Art," who asserts that “conceptual art questions the nature of what is understood as art.” It seemed logical to me that Neurocam might well be questioning the nature of what art is, but I still wasn’t sure if it was art. I had to find some more examples like Ivan’s Dogs.

A few days later I was invited to a dinner party and reluctantly attended in spite of wanting to spend the evening at home on my computer. I thought that it was probably good to get out and interact with people after spending so much time alone on the Internet and obsessing over Neurocam. At the dinner party I met an artist from New Zealand who had recently moved to Australia. We had an interesting discussion about her practice—which mainly involved large- scale wall drawings—and what was going on in the NZ art scene. My ears pricked up when she mentioned a very bizarre art event she had attended a few years ago that had been staged by a friend of hers who was also an artist. I prodded her for more details and she happily told me the full story over several glasses of wine.

The work was called Project George and was staged in Christchurch, NZ during 1998 by artist Jason Maling. Maling attempted to engage an audience in constructing a narrative by focusing on events that had already transpired over several months. In his opening speech at a gallery set up as a detective’s office, Maling informed his audience that they all knew why they were there, and were all implicated in the strange events which had been happening over the last few months. Delivering his lines much like a detective on a case, he proceeded to present fragments of audiovisual material, which were supposedly part of the ‘investigation’. Over the next few weeks he used his impromptu office to interrogate members of the audience who came to see the show. People began to engage with his narrative and brought him several objects (as evidence) that were supposedly part of the ‘investigation’. In an advertised closing event, people turned up to the gallery to find it completely vandalised and Maling nowhere to be seen.

Now I was getting somewhere. Maling’s Project George was very similar conceptually to the Ivan’s Dogs project. Maling had essentially been creating a fabricated narrative by asking the general public to participate in that narrative as if it were a real-life situation. He was not labeling or contextualising the project as art or portraying himself as an artist or the sole creator of the work. His role was to facilitate a series of events that set up the possibility for engagement, much like some of the pervasive games I had been looking at.

After looking at the documentation of the work on Maling’s website, it occurred to me that an interesting aspect of the work was that he had not been in any way dishonest with his audience. His investigation into what he considered a series of ‘strange occurrences’ was based entirely on things he had found in reality and attempted to connect together in unusual ways. He had showed a slide taken in Italy of a burned out car with some graffiti on it and linked the text to something completely unrelated in London, which was then connected to something in Australia and so on. So the audience really was implicated in that his meta-narrative canvas was that of the world around us in which anything could potentially relate to everything if we looked at it in a particular way. I thought this idea was pure genius.

So the question was, what were the similarities and differences between Project George and Neurocam? An obvious difference was that Maling had put himself forward as a public front for his project, whereas I had yet to meet any of Neurocam Management in real-life. Neurocam were infinitely more secretive about their activities whereas Maling had been up-front about everything in spite of the apparent strangeness inherent in what he was doing. His project was also mysterious, but in a more humorous, absurdist way. Another point of difference between the two projects was Maling’s use of a known gallery space as his head quarters. The people who were invited to the event were no doubt selected from the gallery mailing list and probably went along expecting a performance art event or an installation. Which is ultimately what they got, although it was admittedly stretching the boundaries of what is considered performance art and installation. Neurocam was engaging a far broader audience, selected via the great leveling device of an advertising hoarding rather than anything so highbrow as a gallery mailing list.

Both projects were however creating a spontaneous narrative, which engaged the public in a series of improvised scenarios. Project George involved people in an investigation looking into strange goings on, and Neurocam created enough intrigue to motivate people to initiate their own investigations into what Neurocam actually was. Another striking similarity was that both works (assuming that Neurocam was an artwork) required a tacit agreement from the audience to suspend rational disbelief and engage with the narrative framework as if it were real. This was something I had come across frequently when looking at pervasive games, but seemed to be an entirely new concept when considering the ways in which audiences responded to artworks. With Ivan’s Dogs the audience was forced to accept the reality in which they were placed, but participation in Project George and Neurocam required accepting a construct, which was more akin to the way we witness some types of film or theater.

On Maling’s website he was advertising a new project where he wanted people to make an appointment to see The Vorticist. He gave no clues as to who or what ‘The Vorticist’ was, or what this new project was about. I guessed that people would probably engage with his new work on the strength of his reputation alone. I decided to make an appointment and find out what it was all about. Was it possible that Neurocam was just one of a number of strange new art activities going on all around us?

Later that week I got home from another soul destroying day of work to find the details of my next assignment.


A face-to-face assessment of an operative’s suitability for career advancement.

The 1st phase of Neurocam International’s 2005 operations is drawing to a close.
Due to a disparity between the number of active field operatives and the number of operatives required for phase two, Neurocam has decided to downsize its operational work force. To this end it has been determined that a face-to-face assessment of each operative is required.

Based upon the outcomes of this assessment a determination will be made as to whether each operative should; be recommended for career advancement, be retained in Neurocam’s services at their current status, or dismissed from the organisation.

'Chess problems demand from the composer the same virtues that characterise all worthwhile art: originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity.' - Vladimir Nabokov, 'Poems and Problems', 1969

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

1. Between 8–10pm on Tuesday or Wednesday (date withheld for security reasons) you must arrive at (address withheld for security reasons). Before entering the venue, you must ensure that you are wearing both your white facemask and Neurocam Identifier.

2. Upon entering the building, purchase a drink and proceed upstairs where you will be met by a number of other operatives, all of whom will be similarly masked. Please be aware, two of these operatives will be members of Neurocam’s Management Team.

3. Around the venue you will notice a number of chessboards. As soon as a chessboard is free, you must approach another operative, state your Neurocam Operative name and challenge them to a game of chess.
4. Beyond the exchange of your Neurocam name, you are strictly forbidden from discussing Neurocam in any way throughout your match.

5. Once the game has been won or lost, you are to note the name of your competitor, the outcome of the match and the details of any conversation engaged in during the match.

6. You must then repeat steps 3 through 5 until you have either played every operative in the room, or the allotted time for this assessment is complete (see step 7).

7. At 10.00pm exactly you must cease the match you are engaged in and make a note of which player is in an advantageous position.

8. Within the venue there is a painting, which is the work of a famous individual who has not obtained their fame for their artistic endeavors. Determine which painting and the identity of the artist before vacating the venue in an expedient manner.

9. Submit a report of your assignment (including a record of your winnings and losses, a brief transcript of all conversations and the identity of the famous painter) to the Operations Division ( prior to close of business on Friday (date withheld for security reasons).

NOTE: You will be informed of the results of your assessment within two weeks of the submission of your report.

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

Charles Hastings
Head, Operations Division Neurocam International

If there was one thing I had truly come to love about Neurocam, it was their absolute lack of predictability. I felt enormous admiration for the person or people who had conjured up this incredibly bizarre and exciting new assignment. Now that I was looking at the possibility of Neurocam being some kind of artistic experiment or new type of art practice, I could see the creative possibilities inherent within these strange goings on. I was still unsure how I felt about being manipulated into participating in the first place, but I considered that this process might have been an integral part of the experience.

Aside from the fact that I would once again meet face to face with fellow operatives, this assignment was to be the first opportunity to meet with actual Neurocam Management. I wondered what they would be like and whether we would be able to talk to them about Neurocam. Their presence would probably make us slightly paranoid, as they would undoubtedly be tasked with monitoring our conduct. Perhaps attempting to strike up conversations about the cam would not be a wise move. The possibilities presented quite a quandary.

The premise of the assignment was ominous–Neurocam were going to cull some operatives and promote others. I wanted to be promoted more than anything as this would no doubt bring a whole new level to the experience, but I was frustrated that Neurocam hadn’t told us exactly what they were looking for in terms of grounds for promotion. I thought it might be wrong to assume that the operatives who won the most games of chess would be first to be promoted and hoped that this was the case as my chess playing skills were nothing special. I found it somewhat irritating that we had been expressly instructed not to talk about Neurocam while playing matches for Neurocam.

There was a distinct element of tension in this latest development as some of us would be cut off from an ongoing activity that had become an important part of our lives, while others would (rather exclusively) be taken to new heights. I thought about the idea of my Neurocam involvement reaching its conclusion and the idea was not an appealing one. Whatever kind of art or game experience this was I did not want it to end just yet. I guess it was like watching a really good movie or reading an engrossing novel. But the difference was that this was happening in real time and we would not be able to rewind or flick back to the beginning.

In the days before the career advancement suitability assessment I conversed with my Neurocam friends often via email and between us we found a local supplier of cheap white Japanese kabuki masks. 

During my lunch break one day I made a visit to this costume shop on Little Bourke Street and found that their supply of kabuki masks was rapidly dwindling. I asked the girl behind the counter and she said that it was really weird that after selling none of the masks for months, all of a sudden she had dozens of people wanting them in the last three3 days. When I got home that day I made the necessary adjustments to the mask as per Hastings’ instructions in the last assignment—cutting off the chin section at the line of the upper lip. I thought it was clever how he had withheld this detail from the recent assignment brief, making sure that only those who had heard his recording at Bolte Bridge would know what to do. Trying on the mask made me feel like some strange member of a demented cult sect. I could only imagine what a room full of us would look like to the general public ... were we about to become a living, breathing part of someone’s conceptual artwork?

A couple of days later I was looking at websites from some of Melbourne’s art galleries and noticed that a gallery called West Space was advertising a ‘live art event’ which was limited to 10 participants per night. There was a brief write-up about the event, called Strangers and Intimacy, which explained how it was a collaboration between artists, performers and actors from Australia and the UK. The write-up didn’t really say what the event would involve beyond touting it as ‘an unforgettable evening not to be missed’. Never having been to a ‘live art event’ before I decided to sign up. I received a message back almost immediately saying that they could fit me in the following evening at seven, and to arrive at the address and wait outside. In preparation I brushed up on my art lingo and discovered an interesting definition of live art by UK artist Joshua Sofaer:

Live Art is when an artist chooses to make work directly in front of the audience in space and time. So instead of making an object, or an environment (a painting for example) and leaving it for the audience to encounter in their own time, Live Art comes into being at the actual moment of encounter between artist and spectator. Or at least even if they are not physically present, the artist sets up a situation in which the audience experience the work in a particular space and time, and the notion of ‘presence’ is key to the concerns of the work.

I wasn’t entirely sure how live art differed from performance art, but supposed it was to do with the way live art focussed more on the ‘encounters’ between artist and audience, implying a more direct kind of interaction. I was intrigued by Sofaer’s mention of works where the artists would not be physically present, but would set up situations to be experienced by the audience. Wasn’t this exactly what had been happening with Neurocam? I came across another ambitious description of what live art attempts to offer the audience:

Live Art offers immersive experiences, often disrupting distinctions between spectator and participant. Live Art asks us what it means to be here, now. In the simultaneity and interactivity of a media saturated society, Live Art is about immediacy and reality: creating spaces to explore the experience of things, the ambiguities of meaning and the responsibilities of our individual agency.

If the distinctions between spectator and participant were being reinvented in the context of ‘creating spaces to explore the experience of things’, I wondered exactly what kind of art experience I was in for. Needless to say I was interested to see how Strangers and Intimacy related to some of the art I had heard about recently.

The following evening I arrived at the (locked) front door of West Space Gallery to see a small crowd of eight or nine people milling about. It seemed that some of them knew each other, but most had come alone. We chatted about the strangeness of being made to wait outside a gallery without knowing what was in store for us.

At some time after 7pm a window opened above us on the second floor and an attractive young woman leaned out and dropped a feather, which slowly drifted down towards us. A middle-aged woman caught the feather and while she was examining it the doors opened and another attractive young woman came out and led her back in the door and up the stairs, indicating that the rest of us were to remain outside. Another feather was dropped from above and the process repeated until all of us were eventually led up the stairs, through a series of completely empty rooms (which I assumed was the gallery space), and into a small cramped room at the back of the space.

Once we were all crammed inside the very small room the door was shut and locked and we were left there for several minutes. During this time we all sat down on the floor and made ourselves as comfortable as possible within the cramped confines. Some time later the lights were switched off and we were thrown into complete darkness, which was unsettling to say the least. If that was not enough to make us feel uncomfortable, extremely loud sounds began to issue from a small vent on the floor. The sounds were incredibly strange; somehow primordial and chaotic without any connection to anything obviously tangible. At best they could be described as demented wailing. The overall effect was extremely disarming, especially as it continued for at least 15 minutes. Being tightly packed into a room full of complete strangers didn’t help matters, as I felt more than a little bit claustrophobic.

After what seemed like an eternity the sounds stopped and the lights came on. The door opened and another woman we had not seen before entered wearing some kind of maid’s outfit carrying a birthday cake with several candles alight. She was singing happy birthday as she reached out and grabbed the hand of one of the audience members and led him out of the space. As she departed the room loud sounds issued from the adjacent room—people cheered and whistles were blown as if a party was in full swing.

We were then led out by one by one by the cake-wielding woman. I took her hand and was taken to another room where a party was indeed in full swing. The room was now inhabited by twenty or so people all talking, laughing and drinking as if they were right at home in a familiar environment. As I was led through the crowd I was approached by a woman who seemed to know me, who introduced me by name to some of the people at the party, including the hosts. What followed was so utterly bizarre that I had absolutely no frame of reference or way of behaving that empowered me in any way. I was completely at the mercy of a bunch of professionals who knew exactly what they were doing. It was like being inside a play but not having any lines. Over the next two hours I witnessed drunken arguments, animated conversations about all manner of subjects and a tearful confession from a naked girl in the bathroom who told me that her boyfriend had just left her because she had cheated on him. I was also made to dance with a complete stranger and look her in the eye while telling her that I loved her.

When I got home that night I felt like I had experienced some kind of epiphany regarding contemporary art. Essentially I had just been to a gallery and seen some art, but to me the event had been infinitely more potent than anything I had ever encountered in a gallery situation before. I had just had an experience, and it had engaged me on several levels. I had been taken completely out of my comfort zone and had experienced a range of emotions, thoughts and ideas. The key to this amazing event had been the fact that its creators had managed to construct an entire reality through a series of brilliant interconnecting performances, which were seamlessly improvised to engage the participants every step of the way.

Strangers and Intimacy was like a combination of Ivan’s Dogs and Maling’s Project George. It created a situation where the audience were in some ways forced to accept the reality around them, but the script could be adapted at any point to accommodate unpredictable deviations. An interesting aspect to this approach was that each participant had probably gone home with a different story to tell about the evening’s events; only people who had needed to use the bathroom would have encountered the naked crying woman, and while I was in there with her I probably missed all kinds of other things going on in other rooms.

My West Space experience had left me hyped for my upcoming Neurocam assignment. I had just experienced first hand what was now possible in the context of contemporary art, and was all but convinced that Neurocam was playing a similar game. They weren’t doing it in an art gallery, but perhaps this did not matter. If I could be coerced into challenging situations within the seemingly ‘safe’ confines of an art gallery, then why couldn’t this happen anywhere? In both cases I still had the option of opting out of proceedings at any time, but there was also a similar kind of manipulation at play which kept me motivated. I wasn’t exactly being duped by either party, but they were certainly presenting their information in a somewhat selective way. Strangers and Intimacy had not at any point announced that they were artists or that the scenario was an artwork. I imagined that their performance would have worked equally well in another context completely removed from the art world if they had been able to somehow get an audience together. So was this the only real difference between Neurocam and Strangers and Intimacy—the way in which they gathered an audience and the types of venues they used?

I continued to investigate the emergence of a new type of art practice that seemed to alter the fabric of an audience’s reality and attempted to trace these ideas back through recent art history. While performance art and happenings dated back to the sixties, live art was a term that was first used in the UK during the mid-eighties to describe new and existing works. Interestingly, the list of officially recognised ‘live artists’, such as Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, Joseph Beuys, George Brecht, Stuart Brisley, Chris Burden, Gilbert and George, Tehching Hsieh, Paul McCarthy, Hermann Nitsch, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell dated back several years before the term was actually created to encompass a diverse range of performances and happenings. Unfortunately this had the effect of diluting the clarity of what I had considered to be catchy new terminology describing a unique genre.

In trying to find examples of live art not concerned with more traditional performance practices, I came across an interesting work called Snowdancing created by French artist Phillipe Parreno in 1995. Parreno had set up a party and everything that transpired during the 90-minute event became the artwork—clusters, conversations, awkwardness, and all. Some of the partygoers were acting under Parreno’s instructions and played certain key roles, creating a blurring of the line between reality and fiction as most participants were reacting spontaneously to the situation as it played out around them. This sounded very similar to Strangers and Intimacy and I wondered if it had been an influence. If this type of work had occurred over 10 years ago, I wondered if there was a solid tradition of this kind of live art practice. If so, I would have thought that I would have heard about it. I guess it was possible that it was simply not that popular and didn’t have much of a following. The other possibility was that it was operating more on an underground level, focusing entirely on the experiences themselves rather than publicity or documentation.

On the day of the assignment I was so excited that I was hopeless at work. Time dragged unbearably and I found myself zoning out often. My supervisor, who had been monitoring some of my calls, called me into her office and asked me if everything was OK. I wanted to tell her that I couldn’t concentrate because I had an appointment with some masked strangers to determine my fate within a strange organisation called Neurocam, but thought better of it. It would have been hugely ironic if I been sacked from my real life job and promoted with Neurocam. When work was finally over I had an hour to kill before my appointment with the cam and found myself distractedly wandering the streets with the cut-down white kabuki mask in my bag. I contemplated arriving at the location early, but didn’t want to risk anything that might compromise my promotional possibilities.

The venue was a bar on Victoria Street in North Melbourne called Prudence. As I approached I saw several people arrive wearing white masks and quickly put mine on. Thankfully I had widened the ill-placed eyeholes and could see through the mask quite well. A casually dressed man in his early-thirties wearing a similar (but more expensive) mask to mine with a curious logo on the forehead was standing by the door. He greeted me and asked for my identification. 

thought this was odd and pulled out my wallet, thinking that he wanted to see my driver’s license. “Your Neurocam ID” he said. I felt foolish, I had been so nervous that I had forgotten to put on my Neurocam Identity badge. I fished it out of my pocket and he ushered me through the door. So this was a bona fide member of Neurocam Management. He seemed very unapproachable so I didn’t attempt to strike up a conversation. I wondered if I would recognise him in a crowd without his mask on and laughed to myself about Neurocam sending members of management on an assignment where we all happened to be conveniently wearing masks.

I brought myself a beer at the bar and headed upstairs. The bartender hadn’t seemed at all phased about my mask and there were no unmasked customers around so I assumed that Neurocam had hired the entire venue for the evening. At the top of the stairs was a series of large interconnecting rooms, each with several tables and chessboards set up. Most of the tables were occupied with masked figures hunched low over their boards. I was met by a tall balding man in his late-thirties wearing a mask with the same strange logo, who ushered me impatiently to a seating area where a couple of other masked operatives were gathered. It was impossible to tell if any of the people from the Bolte Bridge assignment were present as every person in the room was wearing an almost identical mask.

I made polite conversation with the other operatives in the ‘waiting room’ and made a joke about the tall Neurocam guy who was standing at the top of the stairs. “Friendly fellow isn’t he?” I said. The others appeared not to share my joke and looked sheepishly about. The tall guy came over and told us that there was a table free. I took this opportunity to challenge the operative beside me to a game of chess. His operative name was “Pale Figure”, not someone who had been present at Bolte Bridge. I found it odd that he also had a cut-down mask like my own and wondered if Hastings had run another Bolte Bridge-style assignment with another batch of operatives, or if he had simply sent a different set of instructions. As we made our way to a table I noticed that there were about 50 people present, almost twice the number who had attended Bolte.

While I was engaged in a game of chess with operative “Pale Figure” I looked around the room and was struck with the absolute strangeness of the situation. The décor was that of an old English mansion and several antique lamps cast subdued reddish light about the space. The light was caught on the smooth white faces of the masked figures all hunched low over their chessboards, deep in concentration. The little conversation about the room was a low murmur over a series of what sounded like old movie soundtracks being played on an ancient stereo system. In terms of art direction, the setup reminded me of a famous scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut  in which Tom Cruise’s character happens on a mysterious gathering of masked men who are part of a secret organisation set up as a kind of Masonic Brotherhood dedicated to extravagant and illicit pleasures. Cruise’s character is exposed as he does not follow the correct protocols of one of their ‘meetings’.

As far as I could tell, the only Neurocam Management Personnel present were the guy on the door and the guy at the top of the stairs.

The evening wore on and I lost some games and won some games. At one point the tall Neurocam guy took a phone call which my opponent and I both overheard, explaining that he was "... at this Neurocam thing ... oh it's quite the story, mate ... it goes back, like, a year ... Graham got me into it ..." As he was obviously distracted I looked at the girl opposite me, operative Constance, and asked her, “Do you really think he’s Management?” Constance gave me a ‘cut’ signal by running her hand in front of her neck in a chopping motion and shook her head. I gathered that she didn’t want to risk talking about Neurocam.

Shortly before 10pm I remembered the other part to the assignment—to identify the painting. I wandered through the rooms and looked at the four or five paintings on the walls. A few other operatives were looking at the paintings as well and seemed to be gathered around one in particular, a painting of the seven dwarves by JW Gacy. I overheard a discussion about JW being John Wayne as in John Wayne Gacy the infamous serial killer. I wrote this down and left the building. I had won one game of chess with operative “Pale Figure” and lost two games to operatives “Constance” and “Midnight”. I sincerely hoped that my Neurocam involvement would not be compromised by my lousy chess performance. It struck me that Neurocam could have had several management members present, all participating in chess games to monitor operatives’ conduct. But why chess? Was this an analogy for the complex game Neurocam was playing with us?

All in all it had been a very strange evening as I had interacted with several people without having what I would call a real conversation. The atmosphere of the event had been one of mystery, intrigue and tension—elements obviously carefully controlled by Neurocam. Having actual Neurocam personnel present had been disappointing for me, as I couldn’t help thinking that they seemed to be very much like operatives who might have been higher up the food chain and merely carrying out different assignments. It occurred to me that if some of us were promoted we might find ourselves in a similar position and be given assignments where we facilitated events for other operatives. If this were the case, I wondered who the ‘real’ management were and how many promotions it would take to actually meet them. I found it vaguely distasteful that this was set up as a kind of hierarchy where it implied a sense of status to be rubbing shoulders with Neurocam’s upper management. I thought about what I would do if given such a position of power. Would it be satisfying to have this higher status and subsequent power and control over others? Would this be another test?

I considered the possibility of the evening’s events being part of a live art project and could definitely see similarities to the work of Ivan’s Dogs, Strangers and Intimacy, Project George and Snowdancing. The main difference was that Neurocam was still at this point operating in a more mysterious and removed way; we had yet to have any real contact with the puppet masters or understand fully what their agenda was. Also, the narrative construct was more elaborate and seemed to span over a far longer time frame than the one-off performances of similar works. I decided to dig deeper while I waited impatiently for the outcomes of the career advancement assessment.

While trawling the net I came across a link to a very interesting interactive performance project staged in Adelaide during 2004 by UK artists collective Blast Theory. The project, entitled I like Frank, used 3G mobile phones and a central website to engage an audience in tracking down a man named Frank. The project explored the intersection of real and virtual spaces in much the same way as alternate reality games. Players interfacing with a virtual representation of the city were able to figure out clues and text them to people in the streets.

I like Frank reminded me of the Bolte Bridge assignment where we had worked as a team to solve a narrative based puzzle in much the same way as players in an ARG context. It was interesting that Blast Theory considered themselves to be a ‘performance art collective’ when this project was almost identical to some ARGs. After reading all about the project on their website, I couldn’t help thinking that the project was unsuccessful in terms of testing the boundaries of this kind of hybrid space within an art context. The artists relied too heavily on gaming strategies and pre-determined modes of engagement, which led to a relatively predicable and overly safe experience for participants. There was also the question of motivation. If Neurocam had presented itself as a kind of heavily monitored hybrid art project which one could sign up to participate in, I don’t think I would have bothered. Neurocam seemed to have an edge in that it was not contextualised in any obvious way, but was it art or some kind of subversive experiment that had nothing to do with performance art or live art practice? Strangely, this uncertainty was what made it so appealing.

Another work with similarities to Neurocam that I uncovered was artist and filmmaker Miranda July’s web based work Learning to Love You More that was launched in 2002. July engaged an audience by posting ‘assignments’ on her website which were completed by participants who documented the results and uploaded them on the site. The assignment idea was strikingly similar to Neurocam and participation relied on a sense of community created by the participants themselves. I had also never heard of any other artwork (other than perhaps Neurocam) that required an audience to actually go out and do stuff, which was quite a commitment in itself. I was really excited about the possibilities inherent within July’s work as I imagined that in getting her audience to independently participate in doing things offline, they would no doubt get to have ‘experiences’ that might alter their perceptions in some way, much like with Neurocam. I made a note of some of her assignments for my records:

Interview someone who has experienced war. 
Record the sound that is keeping you awake. 
Make a portrait of your friend's desires.
Give advice to yourself in the past.
Re-enact a scene from a movie that made someone else cry. 
Make an exhibition of the art in your parent's house.
Act out someone else's argument.
Ask your family to describe what you do.
Make a protest sign and protest.
Spend time with a dying person.
Curate an artist's retrospective in a public place. 
Recreate an object from someone's past.
Make a documentary video about a small child.

July’s work certainly encouraged participants to engage with the project in a creative way and had attracted over eight-thousand participants over its seven-year lifespan. Although Learning to Love You More also used the structure of assignments to facilitate audience participation, it did not have any over-arching theme or narrative like Neurocam or like a game.

At this point the only thing all of the works I had been researching had in common was the relationship between artist and audience; these situations had been set up to make the focus of the work the actual participants themselves, not the actions, props or art direction from the artists/performers. Also, these projects did not seem to be documented. I had searched for many hours on the Internet and had not been able to find video, photographs or anything more than brief textual descriptions of the works. As far as I could tell, this represented a radically different way of looking at art, which was ephemeral and not based around object-based outcomes or even extensive documentation.

During the next week I had my appointment to see Jason Maling’s creation The Vorticist, which turned out to be in a small, sparsely furnished room at the Abbotsford Convent. Maling himself, who was wearing a very smart looking blue velvet waistcoat and tie, met me at the gates. He led me through the grand old buildings regaling me with tales of their history as a nunnery. It seemed that the convent was now being used mainly as artists’ studios. Once inside his room, Maling sat me down next to a small table covered in the same blue velvet as his waistcoat upon which sat an assortment of strange equipment. We chatted at length about a range of topics and I had the sense that Maling was always cleverly directing the conversation into areas in which he had control over the content or stories to tell. We talked a lot about UFOs and ghosts, which is not something I am usually conversant with.

After a while he opened a box on the table, which contained a set of brass spinning tops of various sizes. He set up a piece of blue carbon copy paper under a sheet of thin drawing paper on top of a marble slate and asked me to spin the tops on the paper. Not knowing what to do, I randomly selected various tops and spun them randomly on the paper. The copy paper left traces of fine lines underneath the translucent drawing paper, which were visible from above. When I had returned all of the tops to their box Maling removed the top layer of paper and rolled it up using a very old looking rod that he said belonged to his great grandfather. He bound it with some blue velvet and presented it to me, telling me it was mine to keep. Underneath where the paper had been was a beautiful blue layer of copy paper, which had inscribed the inverse of the drawing I had made on it. Maling said that this was his copy and that he would makes notes on our 'appointment’. He showed me a book that contained numerous blue drawings next to meticulous notes about the conversations he’d had with what he referred to as his ‘subjects’.

On the way home from the strange meeting I reflected on how the experience could be considered art and what kind of art it was in relation to some of the works I had recently participated in and read about. I had made a drawing, but I had the feeling that was not the point of the exercise, or the artwork. I thought more about the strange conversation we’d had and it dawned on me that perhaps this was the work. If a conversation could be art then I was sure that Neurocam’s activities could also be art. But I was still uncertain. Even though Neurocam could plausibly be a work of art, it was still entirely possible that it had nothing to do with art and was simply an incredibly elaborate marketing campaign for some kind of gaming company.